Q&A: Susan Enfield — The Seattle Public Schools Superintendent on diversity, Ingraham, and what keeps her up at night

By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly

Dr. Susan Enfield at the Northwest Asian Weekly news room (Photo by Rebecca Ip/SCP)

Dr. Susan Enfield has been a ubiquitous face in the community ever since Dr. Maria Goodloe-Johnson was dismissed as superintendent by the Seattle School Board last March following a financial scandal. Enfield will act as interim superintendent through June 2012.

Recently, Enfield came under fire for dismissing Martin Floe, Ingraham High School’s principal, for personnel reasons she could not disclose. After outcry from students, teachers, and parents, she reversed her decision, and Floe was given another year to improve. Seattle Public Schools (SPS)’s human resources director, Ann Chan, was also let go in April during a major reorganization.

Einfield was hired by Goodloe-Johnson as SPS’s chief academic officer in 2009. Previously, she was deputy superintendent of Evergreen Public Schools in Vancouver, Wash. At the beginning of her career, she taught English, journalism, and English as a Second Language in grades 9–12 for seven years in California. She has degrees from Harvard, Stanford, and the University of California, Berkeley.

Last week, Enfield sat down with Northwest Asian Weekly to answer questions and clear up misconceptions about her and the school district. These are the highlights.

NWAW: Why did you decide to become an administrator?

Enfield: I saw an ad for the Harvard Urban Superintendents Program and thought it looked interesting and said, ‘Maybe I’ll apply.’ I applied and got in. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be an urban superintendent, but once I got into the program and did an internship, I thought, this is the work I want to do. …

When I taught, I could influence the students in my class, [but] as district administrator, I had the potential — if I get it right and work with my team at all levels — we can impact so many more kids. …

I always say to people that I always try to be the head and the heart of a teacher in my work as a superintendent.

Were you prepared for what happened with Maria Goodloe-Johnson?

I don’t think anyone [can be] prepared for the circumstances under which I took the role. … But we quickly put an interim team in place. I knew coming in that I had to steady the central office because there had been a lot of upheaval and people were feeling very anxious. … It was a time of great turmoil in the community. My biggest challenge coming in was to pay attention internally, while being as public as I could … so I could reassure people that we were getting things back on track.

Being a teacher, working with immigrant students, you must have a lot of ideas on how to close the achievement gap?

Unfortunately, if someone had the answer, we wouldn’t have the gap. But I think there are a few things we need to do as a system. Research and common sense and good practice tell us that the best way to not have a gap is to prevent it from starting. So that means investing in the early years and making sure that, by third grade, every student is a reader and a mathematician, because if they’re not at grade level by third grade, the gap begins.

One of the things I’m talking about with teachers and principals is how can we make closing our gaps a much more explicit focus. We’ve talked about it a lot, but I don’t think, school by school, we’ve said, ‘Here are the kids in the gap. Here’s what we’re going to do about it.’ Attached to that, I don’t think we’ve done a good job in the district in recognizing schools that are closing the gap and asking them, ‘What are you doing?’

Would you say that what happened with Ingraham, in a way, was you trying to minimize the gap?

I think what happened at Ingraham is a catalyst for us as a community to have really good conversation around what we want for all of our students, what it’s going to require of the district and what it requires of the community.

It’s a very difficult conversation, though.

It is. It’s a very difficult one. But I’m committed to having it. … As hard as the last couple of weeks have been, it really highlighted that we need to have the conversation.

Can you give us more insight on why you decided to keep Ingraham’s principal?

As I said in the papers, the decision that I made with the information that I had was the right decision, but it became clear to me from students, family, and staff that we hadn’t done a good job as a school system of articulating what the process is. … And it created such a high level of anxiety among students and families and staff at a really critical time of year.

After really listening to students, staff, and families, I felt it was appropriate to make the decision that I did to allow another year to see what we can do in terms of performance.

Some said that changing your mind like that may not be a good thing, because people will think, if we protest a lot more, she’ll change her mind again.

What I’ve said to people is there’s a difference between caving in and listening and responding thoughtfully. And I stand by the original decision. I stand by the data that led to that decision. … However, when you make a commitment to listen to the community, you have to listen. You can’t go in with your mind entirely made up because that means you’re not really listening.

Even though people may perceive you as soft, it’s OK?

I don’t know if people perceive it as soft. I think people want to know that leaders are responsive. That they’re willing to hear, that they’re willing to say, OK, you know what, we didn’t roll this out appropriately … maybe the timing wasn’t right. … I accept responsibility for that.

It was a difficult decision, both of them.  And not something I take lightly.

Did you lose sleep over Ingraham?

I’ve had lots of sleepless nights since I took this job. Sure, when you have students and families and staff who are clearly upset. And the challenging part was that I couldn’t tell the reason behind my decision because it was personnel matter. … The principal and I knew what that information was, but I could not share it. I think that was hard.

I’ve lost a lot of sleep over a lot of different things. We have a lot of significant work to do. I don’t think that it’s going to be easy, but I keep coming back to all the reasons I have to be hopeful. And that’s what gets me up and keeps me going.

You want to raise the bar. What does that look like? How will it work?

My primary focus this year has been really improving the quality of instructional leadership in the buildings. So that means my executive directors of schools who oversee a region of principals are in the schools, with the principals, walking in the classes, observing teaching practices, and helping support teachers to get better in their practices. That’s how we raise the level of quality in instruction everywhere.

Will teachers and principals be paid based on performance?

We don’t have merit pay, per se. Seniority still is in play in the district. However, with our new collective bargaining agreement, one of the factors that goes into a teacher’s performance evaluation is student growth.

We’re working out right now, with our research and evaluation department, to figure out what those growth measures look like. So that’s a significant shift. It’s no longer, as a teacher, saying, ‘I did the best I could.’

And if there is no student growth?

When there’s a performance concern, the staff member is put on a plan of improvement, and that plan unfolds over time, with appropriate support and targets that they have to meet. And it’s only after those targets haven’t been met over time that termination happens.

For the students that need the most help, their parents are often not available. How do you plan to get those students and their parents more engaged?

When I was an ESL teacher, I taught English Language Development 1. It was students who just arrived from various countries. I had upwards of 12 languages and little-to-no English in my classroom. Some of the students were living on their own. Some were living with a cousin. Those living with parents or family — their parents and family were often working multiple jobs. So that’s real. The challenges are real.

But I do think we have an opportunity with our advocacy groups across the community to come together and say, ‘How can the district partner with you to give voice to those families and students?’ …

I don’t believe that the district can do this alone. We have to rely on community organizations to help us with this.

You got some flak for your dismissal of Ann Chan. How do you respond?

It’s a fair criticism. The fact of the matter is that I know the community would like to see greater diversity, both at the central office and frankly, in our schools. … It’s a greater challenge in the Pacific Northwest because, you saw the Census numbers, we’re not an extremely diverse area. That means we have to get better at recruiting, both within and outside the area. I’m committed to doing everything I can to diversify our leadership and, at the same time, hire the very best people that can do the job.

Why do you believe diversity is important?

Actually, I heard this from students on Saturday morning. They said, ‘I’d like to see role models who look like me.’ … I know that all segments of the community would like the district to more accurately reflect that diversity that does exist within our community.

Do you plan to vie for a more permanent position?

I get this question a lot. And I know people want a yes or no answer. But I think it’s a little premature. I’ve been hired to do a job, and it’s a big one. It takes all my energy and focus to do the best job that I can, and that’s where my energy and focus will remain. What happens six to eight months from now, I’ll deal with six to eight months from now. ♦

For more information, visit district.seattleschools.org. Dr. Enfield can be reached at 206-252-0180.

Stacy Nguyen can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

8 Responses to “Q&A: Susan Enfield — The Seattle Public Schools Superintendent on diversity, Ingraham, and what keeps her up at night”

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  4. Mike Miller says:

    I, like many others, am sorely disappointed with the dismal leadership in the Seattle schools. Regretably, Dr. Enfield appears to lack both the character traits and the knowledge necessary to turn the tide. There are many particulars that could be subjected to criticism. I’ll choose only one.
    Enfield, like many within public education, coddle emerging attitudes of racism rather than confronting them honestly, firmly, and with humble sincerity. Her response to the next-to-last question about diversity is telling. If my child were to say, “I’d like to see role models who look like me”, my response would not be to coddle that emerging racist attitude, but to gently correct it in its intfantcy. “My dear son, we should not judge or qualify our role models & heroes on the basis of skin color, but rather on the content of their character.” (Seems to me I’ve heard that somewhere before.) Please stop dividing us along racial lines under the racial pretext of “diversity.” Heroic character traits come packaged in all shapes, sizes, sexes… and colors.

  5. Danaher M. Dempsey, Jr. says:

    It seems from reading the comments below that Dr. Enfield is reporting on what she would like to have happen in regard to policy but NOT what really happens. She seems to be making up stories as she goes along and calling that policy and procedure.

  6. Charlie Mas says:

    Dr. Enfield said “we hadn’t done a good job as a school system of articulating what the process is”

    So, what is the process? How are principals evaluated? Is it on the District web site?

    Dr. Enfield said “When there’s a performance concern, the staff member is put on a plan of improvement, and that plan unfolds over time, with appropriate support and targets that they have to meet. And it’s only after those targets haven’t been met over time that termination happens.” Is that what happened in Mr. Floe’s case? His new supervisor had been on the job for about five months before his termination was announced. Is that enough time for her to have determined that there was a performance concern, for her to put him on a plan of improvement, for that plan to unfold, and for targets to be missed? How could he be terminated before the 2011 HSPE results were known?

    How was there time for that process to be followed for Ms Chan?

  7. Danaher M. Dempsey, Jr. says:

    It the article the following appeared:

    AW: And if there is no student growth?

    SE: When there’s a performance concern, the staff member is put on a plan of improvement, and that plan unfolds over time, with appropriate support and targets that they have to meet. And it’s only after those targets haven’t been met over time that termination happens.

    How interesting… So when will anyone at the District level ever held responsible for the ongoing k-12 Math Fiasco?

    Consider the following:

    In WA State we have according to the MSP … at the end of 8th grade 51.6% of kids passing the Math MSP and 26.7% of kids unable to score above level 1.

    In the Seattle we have according to the MSP … at the end of 8th grade 60.4% of kids passing the Math MSP and 22.6% of kids unable to score above level 1.

    For Seattle’s Black students those numbers are at the end of 8th grade are:
    30.5% of kids passing the Math MSP and 45.4% of kids unable to score above level 1.

    THE SPS apparently has a plan in place to leave the level 1’s at level 1 forever and move level 2’s to level 1’s.

    For Seattle’s Black students those numbers are at the end of 10th grade are:
    12.5% of kids passing the Math HSPE and 68.8% of kids unable to score above level 1.

    ……. Superintendent Enfield just had the Board adopt a new Promotion/ Non-Promotion policy D43.00 which has no mention of providing interventions for struggling students.

    She was the Chief Academic Officer and is now the interim Superintendent…. so ….

    targets haven’t been met over time … so what?

  8. Kate Martin says:

    I think we could simplify it by just using some proven strategies.

    It’s not that complicated.


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