Get to know interim Seattle schools superintendent Susan Enfield

Mar 9, 2011

Most people know very little about the new head of Seattle Public Schools. After Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson was fired over financial irregularities last week, the school board named Susan Enfield interim superintendent. Enfield had only been with the district for a year and a half as Chief Academic Officer. KPLU education reporter Charla Bear sat down with her to find out what she brings to Seattle schools besides an impressive resume...and dozens of rubber duckies.

Since Enfield and the school board have said on numerous occasions that her first order of business will be to restore the public's trust, it should come as no surprise that she already has a plan for that. She says, first of all, she has to be out in the community listening to what people have to say:

"I don't want to assume I know all the concerns or frustrations people in the community have.  They need to be heard."

She also says she's focused on putting the district's financial house in order. She's working with the CEO and COO, whose jobs are both also interim, and other staff to put what she calls "appropriate internal controls" in place. 

Cultural Challenges

In response to a recent editorial Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn wrote in the Seattle Times calling for the district to not only change its managers, but its culture, Enfield says she really wants to initiate a shift in how central office staff sees its work: 

"We are here to serve schools. That's why we come to work everyday. And I think that focus will shift how we do things, how we prioritize things."

She's confident these changes are possible even though she only has an interim, one-year contract. After all, that's almost a-third of the tenure of most permanent superintendents.

Part of the Community

Enfield says she's not interested in being a superintendent, interim or otherwise, who just comes to work in a school system:

"I'm interested in being a leader who not only leads, but lives in the community. We're not going to have the kind of community here in Seattle that we want ultimately unless we have a school system that everyone can be proud of. And I know that's a goal we all share."

On the little matter that the house she owns is in Vancouver, Washington, she says that doesn't mean she's not committed to Seattle. It's just that she and her husband couldn't sell the house without "suffering some huge losses." Her husband still lives in the house in Vancouver. She says they travel to see each other every weekend, but that won't be their reality forever.

Long Line of Educators, Short Journey to Superintendent

Enfield says she was drawn to education for a couple of reasons. She comes from a long line of educators on her father's side of the family. Her great grandmother was a superintendent. Above all, she says she just "always knew" she wanted to teach. She says she even schooled her stuffed animals when she was in second grade.

Her career took a detour after college, when she went to work for a publishing firm.  But she says "the pull was too strong." When she returned to education, here how quickly things progressed:

  1. Obtained M.A. in Education from Stanford in 1993
  2. Taught in high schools from 1993-1999
  3. Worked as a school improvement coach from 1999-2001
  4. Enrolled in Urban Superintendent's Program at Harvard University 2001
  5. Named interim superintendent in Seattle 2011

Teaching philosophy

Enfield says she developed one of her strongest convictions about teaching early in her career.  She says she noticed a big difference in the level of support and parental expectations between her advanced journalism students and her English Language Learner class:

"That felt wrong to me. It was then that I committed to this notion of working to create an equitable system that really serves all kids equally well."

She says whether it's possible to achieve school equality for all children, especially at a time of huge budget challenges, is the "big question." So, she says district leaders are focusing on building a "really strong" early foundation learning and intervention model.

"The five- and six-year old brain is a wondrous thing. And if we can really get in there and intervene before students start to fail, we have a much better shot."

Taking Care of Herself

Enfield says a nice analogy for working in education is running marathons, something she used to do. She says while she doesn't have the time to keep up with the level of training to run full marathons anymore, she's planning to run a half marathon in a few months. She says people have been telling her to take care of herself, something she says is crucial for educators to do to ensure they'll be around in the long run for kids and the community.

Oh, and apparently she likes to keep things a little childlike. Her office is colorful and playful, thanks to about every rubber duckie you could possibly imagine. She has polka dot ducks, devil ducks, and even an Elvis duck. She says, for reasons he can't remember, her dad called her duck since she was a kid. Ever since, she says people have been especially generous with the little quackers, especially in Seattle.