Susan Enfield eschews Seattle and thinks Highline is Going from Good to Great
by Jack Mayne
Susan Enfield says she is seeking the Highline School District’s top job because it is a district “that just needs to keep going from good to great and that is appealing.”
Enfield is now the interim superintendent of the Seattle School District but is one of three finalists for the top school job in the Highline District – and is a top candidate for the superintendency in the Bellevue district.
She made her pitch for the Highline job Friday night (Feb. 24) before about 75 people in the Burien City Council chamber, ending a three-night exposure for the finalists. The Highline School Board is expected to make a final decision on the job by March 1 and likely at the Feb. 29 board meeting at school district headquarters.
The Bellevue board made it clear she was welcome to apply for the job there. A Seattle Times recent headline said, “Bellevue schools to Susan Enfield: We like you, too.” The Bellevue board was supposed to make some final decisions on the job there by Monday, two days before the Highline meeting.
Both Seattle and Bellevue jobs pay $225,000. It is unclear what the Highline position might pay.
There were also rumors she was talking with the Puyallup School District, but a spokesperson would not comment on candidates, reported the Times.
So, really, why Highline?
That was the first and nearly the last thing discussed at the public meeting Friday night.
“This is my third year in Seattle public schools, first as the chief academic officer and, since March 2 of last year as the interim superintendent,” Enfield said. “Though I made the decision not to be a candidate for the permanent position in Seattle, my husband and I really love this region . . . itself, but also the people. One of the best parts of what I have experienced over the past three years has been the professional relationships and personal relationships that I have been able to build. That kept me wanting to stay in this part of the country.”
There have been reports of disagreements between some newer members of the Seattle school board and Enfield, prompting her to refuse to be a candidate there.
So the Highline moderator asked her what she thought was special about Highline.
Enfield said she was acquainted with former Highline Superintendent John Welch and “he did tremendous work here and so there is such a good base to build from.”
“This is a district that does not need to be turned around,” she said. “It is clear that there is a staff and community here that is dedicated, without question, to creating a school system that serves all children well. This is an area where the community has a tremendous sense of investment in its schools and I believe that is vital for any school system to flourish.
“Every parent and family member wants the best for their child – they want their child to succeed. It is how do we create a system that they feel is one they can access and be a part of to make sure that their child is getting that education that he or she deserves to be successful.”
Then near the end of the meeting she was asked if she gets the job, “will you stick around for a while?”
“I have chosen one of the most volatile careers on the planet, that of an urban school superintendent,” she said with a laugh. Most school superintendents stay on the job for only two or three years.
“One of my very conscious decisions in wanting to go to a smaller system is because my husband and I really are looking to put down some roots and be somewhere for a while. I am looking to be somewhere for from five to 10 years and longer if I can because I think that to really do the kind of work and effect the kind of permanent change that we want you really have to stick it out – it just doesn’t happen overnight. I want to be part of a community and live and lead.
How would she do her job?
Enfield was asked to define the boundary between the role of the family and the role of the school district.
“The district has an obligation to be a place where families feel they can come … and that they will be respected and responded to,” she said. “The district has an obligation to provide resources to families so that they know what they can do to help their children, be that in the form of on-line resources or hard copy resources … so that parents have the tools and the access. Then, I believe it us up to the parents and families to partner with the school system in helping their child be successful.”
She was asked what she would do ensure the image of the Highline district contributed to economic development and neighborhood stability.
“Part of the job of superintendent, I believe, is to be the chief cheerleader for the district,” Enfield said. “It the superintendent isn’t cheerleading and singing the praises for the district in as many ways as possible, how can you expect anyone else to?”
She said she would take every opportunity possible to make certain people know what the district is doing and how it helps the students, “so ultimately the school district is the point and pride of the community.”
“We all know that when people are recruiting, when business is recruiting for people to come and work here, people ask ‘what are the schools like?’ From the economic perspective, and a thriving business perspective, having a strong school system that people have confidence in and are proud of is key.”
She said she was a “very strong” supporter of an all-day kindergarten program.
“I am a passionate believer in the paramount importance of early learning,” Enfield said, adding that high quality pre-K programs are critical to the students who are most at risk and all day programs are good for all kids, but especially the students who are struggling.
“Music and the arts are critically important as well, but we know that in tough budget times those are often put on the chopping block,” she said. “I hope we are never in a place where we have to deprive our students of access to music and the arts. We know that students perform better academically when they have a full exposure to arts and music. It is not something that is nice to have, it really does help them become better academically especially for students that don’t have the access otherwise.”
How will she manage?
She was asked about her management skills for large numbers of people, professional and support staff.
“We talk about leadership and management sometimes in a vacuum from the fact is about people,” Enfield said. “It is about building relationships and finding common ground to achieve a common goal.”
What drives her, she said, is how to create a team of people who share the same mission and “are willing to work tirelessly to make it a reality.”
Enfield said she does not want people to always “tell me the sun is always shining.”
“One of my common lines that I use with my (Seattle) deputy superintendent on a daily basis is ‘OK, so tell me what I need to hear that I don’t want to hear’. You need people who will tell you that. Otherwise you are not doing right by the system and you are not really making any progress.”