If Susan Enfield was looking for a challenge, she got one.
A school district rocked by a financial scandal. An anxious school board. Angry parents. And kids whose futures depend on the district’s ability to deliver an excellent education.
The question: Can she deliver?
On Wednesday night, the board named Enfield interim superintendent after dismissing Maria Goodloe-Johnson.
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Enfield was hired as the district’s chief academic officer only 18 months ago. She’ll have a little more than a year — the length of the contract the board offered — to make her mark in the largest school district in the state, one that spends $556 million a year educating 47,000 students.
A former high-school teacher, Enfield has a decade’s worth of experience as an administrator. But she lacks financial experience at a time when the district is facing a $35 million budget shortfall and a money scandal born of lax oversight.
But if Enfield, 42, lacks the financial chops, her admirers say she’s smart and capable.
“I’m convinced that she has a really deep understanding of the issues that we face,” said School Board Vice President Michael DeBell, who praised her flexibility and creativity.
“When she hears very legitimate concerns or questions about a course of action, she’s willing to integrate those into her thinking and change course,” he said.
The change in leadership comes in the middle of a five-year improvement plan that Goodloe-Johnson initiated when she arrived in 2007. As part of that plan, she closed schools, carried out a new plan for assigning students to schools, added more testing and established new performance reports designed to give parents and others better information about how schools are doing. She also centralized operations, changing a district that had allowed more autonomous decision-making at its schools.
Enfield has held seven positions over the past 10 years, so it’s hard to say how she’ll run the district. But in the 18 months she’s been here, she’s won over some of Seattle’s education leaders.
Chris Korsmo, CEO for the League of Education Voters, said Enfield is a straight shooter who feels a sense of urgency even as she understands that change takes time in a large system like Seattle’s.
“She was very committed to significant raises in advancement in a shorter time frame than even the district strategic plan recommended,” Korsmo said. “She’s a good listener. A warm person. She will tell you the truth, not tell you what you want to hear.”
Sara Morris, president and CEO of the Alliance for Education, a nonprofit organization of business and civic leaders that supports Seattle Public Schools, said, “She’s very smart, she’s very capable, she’s very charismatic, and she knows how to connect with people. She is a very approachable, dynamic leader who inspires confidence.”
Lucy Gaskill Gaddis, who has worked with Enfield for six months on a committee that oversees city spending on programs that benefit school children, said, “The community will rally around her as she steps into the hot seat. She is highly qualified to be a superintendent.”
Enfield comes with an impressive academic résumé: two master’s degrees — one from Stanford University, another from Harvard University, from which she also obtained a doctorate in education in 2008.
Enfield is married to an engineer who works at a Portland firm. The couple own a house in Vancouver.
Enfield began her education career teaching high school in California in 1993. She became a school-improvement coach in Berkeley from 1999 to 2001, then moved to Pennsylvania, where she performed a six-month internship related to her doctorate.
She worked for eight months as special assistant to the Pennsylvania Secretary of Education in 2003 before becoming director of teaching and learning support for Pennsylvania’s education department, where she worked for a year.
Named director of teaching and learning for Portland Public Schools in November 2004, she worked there less than two years before becoming deputy superintendent for Evergreen Public Schools in Vancouver, Wash.
Enfield’s tenure in Vancouver ended before key leaders got a chance to develop strong opinions about her style and potential as a leader.
Evergreen Public Schools Superintendent John Deeder on Wednesday instructed his staff not to comment about Enfield, who worked as deputy director for the district from August 2006 to June 2009.
Gloria Smith, president of the Evergreen teachers’ union, said Enfield’s position was eliminated as part of wide-ranging administrative cuts.
“I don’t know her that well because she wasn’t here that long,” Smith said. “But she did advocate for special education and the people she was in charge of and did effect some positive changes.”
After a year at the district, Enfield started her own company, SEH Education Consulting, based at her house in Vancouver. The Evergreen district said that she has never worked as a consultant for the district.
In Portland, Enfield’s 19-month tenure as head of the Office of Teaching and Learning hit a rough patch when she helped spearhead controversial curriculum changes at the district’s middle and high schools.
The changes, championed by then-superintendent Vicki Phillips, introduced nonfiction-writing lessons in class as a way to improve literacy. Teachers objected not only to the lessons but also to the way they were implemented, calling them top-down mandates that were disconnected from classroom realities.
Enfield left Portland in June 2006, citing personal and professional reasons. She told The Oregonian newspaper that she was ready to “make a change.”
DeBell, Seattle School Board vice president, said Enfield has proved to be a good listener.
Shortly after she was hired, the administrator in charge of high schools wanted to restructure language-arts classes so that there would be a very narrow course of study and students would generally read the same books, DeBell said. Many of the English teachers objected, and the board wasn’t thrilled, either.
“She reworked it and did a lot of outreach to the language-arts teachers, listened carefully to what the board was thinking and came up with a very different proposal,” he said.