SUPERINTENDENT MARIA GOODLOE-JOHNSON, Ph.D.
When Maria Goodloe-Johnson was growing up in Omaha, Neb., talk around the dinner table often centered on race. It was the early ’70s, and efforts were on to desegregate the schools via mandatory busing. This led to racial strife in Omaha — as elsewhere — and occasional violence. And the opinions within her family were far from unified.
“We had a multi-generational perspective,” says Goodloe-Johnson, who is the second African American and first woman since 1890 to lead Seattle’s 45,000-strong school district. Her maternal grandmother, Jewell, who was born in 1900 and raised in Jim Crow-era Mississippi, “didn’t trust white people. … We knew if we were going to bring a white person to the house, we’d have to ‘prep’ her.” Goodloe-Johnson’s mother (also named Jewell), on the other hand, spent over 40 years as a public schoolteacher. “My mother would then provide a different perspective, to provide the balance,” she recalls.
It’s a summer afternoon in Goodloe-Johnson’s office. The space is flooded with light; a broad sweep of windows looks toward downtown Seattle. An enormous fresh floral arrangement graces a long meeting table, along with a bowl of apples.
The superintendent, 51, says she received a very good education at an all-black elementary school. “We walked to school; that was a great experience,” she recalls. By the time junior high rolled around, however, things were changing. Despite a school five blocks away, there was a lot of race-related tension. “Mama said, ‘You’re not going there.’”
Instead, she was carpooled to an all-white school across town that “had a great band” (she played trumpet). She has no memory of race ever being an issue there. For high school she attended an integrated school, “what today we’d call an all-city draw.”
Seattle also bused students to promote racial integration. That program, which began in 1978 — without a court order — was largely dismantled in the late ’90s by then-Superintendent John Stanford. A fragment, the “racial tiebreaker,” hung on for a number of years until the practice was suspended pending litigation, then ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007.
In June of this year the school board approved a new student assignment plan that departs radically from the past. The heart of its mission is to reinvigorate the neighborhood school, assigning most students to their closest building and working to assure “Excellence for All”— the title of Goodloe-Johnson’s five-year strategic plan which began last year — for every child, and in every school.
With this new
plan, Seattle’s long-held priority of integrated
schools will take a second seat.
Also driving this sea change are cultural and demographic issues. The data repeatedly show that “families want neighborhood schools,” says the superintendent, who believes in using research to guide decisions. The process will be easy for families to understand. Among other things, the plan should enable families to be more involved with their children’s school, if for no other reason than it will be closer to home.
The new plan replaces Seattle’s longtime focus on “choice,” which many families found too complicated or unfair when their children didn’t get into schools close to home. Under the old system, parents ranked the schools they wanted their children to attend, and placement in the most popular ones was determined by a series of “tiebreakers.” Each winter during open enrollment, schools would gear up for tours. The result often felt like a kind of sorority rush in which teachers, administrators and parent volunteers worked to make a good impression on prospective parents.
Under the new assignment plan, “choice” takes second place to “predictability,” but it will still exist to the extent that parents can request a school different than the one to which their child is assigned, and there will continue to be alternative programs like Seattle Center School open to students throughout the city. (A new series of tiebreakers will be used to determine who will get open seats at schools that aren’t filled by students in the boundary area and to determine who gets into schools with all-city draws.) The one piece yet to be decided is where to draw the new boundary lines. Maps showing proposed boundaries will be available for public comment this fall; the board will then vote on them.
“The emphasis is on making our schools strong,” says Goodloe-Johnson. The recent school closures will free up cash to be used for adding more attractive programs in the south end, which under the old enrollment plan lost students to north-end schools. This might mean more Advanced Placement classes, for example. The district increased the number of AP classes by 30 percent for this school year, and in July Cleveland High School was designated an option school, an all-city draw offering the STEM program (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Five schools will continue as international schools — so-called because of their language-immersion programs — including Beacon Hill and Concord elementaries, and Denny Middle School. And Chief Sealth High School offers the rigorous International Baccalaureate program. The district will offer “more support for schools so that they become more competitive,” says Goodloe-Johnson.
Now in her third year, the superintendent has led the district through other challenges as well. A $34 million state budget shortfall had to be dealt with. In addition to closing five buildings, all or part of eight other schools were moved. While predicted to save millions, these moves traumatized hundreds of families and staff. (It must have been affirming, a month or so after the board passed these difficult changes, to have the Gates Foundation announce it was giving the district $7.2 million. In addition, the district is receiving nearly $2 million from Boeing and two foundations.) Transportation schedules have been “tiered,” resulting in nearly 50 fewer buses on the streets this school year. And a new curriculum plan aims to align learning goals throughout the district’s schools.
Managing this much change, this fast, in economically and ethnically diverse Seattle (and don’t forget the recession) requires exceptional leadership talent that encompasses vision, tenacity, communication skills and — perhaps most important — the ability to motivate and inspire others.
Cheryl Chow, outgoing board member who was president at the time of Goodloe-Johnson’s hiring and led the search team, describes the superintendent as “a strong education leader … who is dedicated to good teachers; teachers who are excited about seeing the improvement of their students.” Chow added that with all the changes “there’s (always) some pushback; it’s human nature.”
Longtime schools activist Charlie Mas agrees. “When you’re working to be a change agent and asking people to abandon everything they’ve known, it’s frightening; you have to work with patience and enthusiasm,” he says.
Goodloe-Johnson says her best role model is her mother. Their professional lives have commonalities — Jewell Goodloe taught for many years in a psychiatric institute; Goodloe-Johnson began teaching in a special-ed classroom. Jewell Goodloe recalls that her daughter as a child was extremely focused. “Maria set her goals and achieved them,” she said. “In elementary school, she always wanted to be the best student in the class.” On the other hand, in kindergarten when students were asked to partner up, “Maria would always choose that person who normally would be chosen last.”
Jewell Goodloe’s best advice for parents is to “make sure that they take their children out and expose them to different people and different experiences. The more variety a child has when they’re growing up, the better.”
Goodloe-Johnson, who gave birth to her daughter, Maya, at 47, says becoming a parent changed her professional approach. “It provided me with a real story to tell,” she says. With educators and staff, it “personalizes [school assignment] to a fine point …I can honestly say, is that where you’d want your child to go?”
Goodloe-Johnson and her husband, Bruce, rent a house in Seward Park. Retired from UPS, he’s now enrolled in a master’s in divinity program at Seattle University (“something he has always wanted to do,” she says). Jewell Goodloe lives with them and looks after Maya, who was named for the poet Maya Angelou. “For Maya to be at home and have that relationship with her grandmother is great,” says the superintendent. “When I was a child we had the same situation.” Maya and her grandmother enjoy working puzzles and cooking together; ox tails, stuffed meatloaf and chocolate-chip cookies are family favorites.
How does Goodloe-Johnson handle her very public and stressful job? There is no shortage of critics. She’s been chastised for being on her BlackBerry during public meetings (“No more,” she says). A letter sent to teachers last spring regarding a cut in state funding for training (from two days to one) infuriated the union. And her comment that she sleeps “very well,” after being asked how in good conscience she could close schools when it would cause such pain, drew protests.
Goodloe-Johnson says she survives by keeping her eye on the prize — the big picture. She finds inspiration in many places, from books to “Oprah.” She’s currently reading Leading from Within: Poetry That Sustains the Courage to Lead, a collection of 93 poems, each introduced by a leader who explains the significance of the poem in his or her life and work.
As for self-care, she says, “I try to eat healthy, exercise, have fun … I’ve always been a doer, playing hard, working hard.”
Can she truly leave her work at the office? “I have to consciously do it, but you have to if you’re going to have a healthy family life,” she says. Because if you don’t, “you can work yourself to death.”
Susan Enfield may be new in town, but she hails from Seattle’s No. 1 competitor when it comes to urban Northwest livability: the Portland area. She says there are “huge similarities” between the two regions’ public schools as well, including size, demographics and challenges.
Enfield joined Seattle Public Schools in July as chief academic officer. She took over for Carla Santorno, who is now with the Tacoma district. Enfield moved from Evergreen Public Schools in Vancouver, Wash., where she was deputy superintendent. Prior to that she worked for the Portland school district.
In her new position, Enfield essentially manages the district’s schools, including the highly visible job of setting policy on curriculum, teaching and testing. She also directs programs for special ed, advanced learning (Spectrum and APP programs) and bilingual students, and oversees professional development.
It’s a big job, but Enfield comes well prepared. Take math, for example, a hot topic in Seattle between adopting new high school textbooks last spring and current efforts to align curriculum. The Evergreen district found it needed to strengthen this area, and Enfield put a five-year plan in motion for implementing math curriculum and support.
“Here (was) the challenge,” Enfield says. “In teaching literacy, we have a comprehensive, balanced approach. We have to approach math instruction the same way.” In other words, “apply math knowledge in meaningful ways.” Training was an important piece. “What should you expect to see in a math class after 10 minutes, 30 minutes? Principals could (then) support teachers in very real terms.”
Enfield also doubled the number of students enrolled in AP classes in Vancouver. “We took down the barriers,” she says. “Instead of a test, if you were interested and showed commitment, with instructor OK you could enroll in the class.” Information was provided to parents about expectations so students could be successful.
But wouldn't having a wider range of capabilities in an AP classroom make it less challenging? Enfield says AP classes must meet national standards, and the district will not reduce the rigor. “Providing more access doesn’t mean diluting,” she says. “You’re talking about asking our AP classes to do what we ask all teachers to do — teach to a range of students. The key is providing good support for those teachers.”
When Cathy Thompson was ordering a drink at the Starbucks on First Avenue South recently she noticed that the young woman behind the counter kept looking at her. “Miss Thompson!” she suddenly cried out. “You were my first-grade teacher!” The student is now a sophomore at the UW, trying to decide between nursing and a technical field. She was “an amazing, beautiful, articulate young woman,” said Thompson, adding that it was one of those “reinforcing moments” in her career.
Last year Thompson, whose enthusiasm for public education bubbles forth like a fountain, was named executive director of curriculum and instruction for the Seattle district. It was a new position created to support the five-year strategic plan, “Excellence for All,” which was approved in 2008.
Thompson has been heavily involved in the push toward curriculum alignment, as called for by the plan. She defines alignment as “quality control.” Most surrounding school districts already have this in place, she says, and the goal is not “standardization,” but aligning learning goals so that all students at a given grade level are taught the same general material. “We’d never tell the teachers what to do,” Thompson says. “Part of alignment work is making sure students aren’t reading the same book three years in a row.” For now, curriculum alignment efforts are aimed at math and science at the high school level.
Another piece of the strategic plan was closing some schools. Alhough Thompson was not directly involved in the process, she acutely felt the pain it caused. She was principal of Rainier View Elementary in 2007 when it closed. She had a tight staff of mostly first-time teachers. “We helped our kids grieve, but looked ahead, knowing that change is part of life,” she says.
Thompson began teaching at age 35 after a decade of staying home with a son and daughter (“I was PTA president and all that stuff”). She is now working on a doctorate in education at the UW. A product of Seattle public schools — she grew up in West Seattle — she found one of her first jobs “a life-changing experience.” She was at Bailey Gatzert Elementary, which housed the district’s official homeless program then. “Over the year I learned how persistent these children were in pursuing what they needed. They had life skills I didn’t possess.
“I knew every day I walked through the door, there was potential to add value to their education. These were the kids I wanted to work with … They are survivors.”
In June, the Seattle School Board approved its new student assignment plan, but it has yet to release the school boundaries that are at the center of the plan. The uncertainty about where the lines around schools will fall has led to a lot of speculation.
In Ballard, there has been much ado about the northern boundary of Ballard High being drawn at NW 67th Street, the northern edge of the school. Then it was said to be set at NW 85th. “These rumors seem to spring from nowhere,” says Tracy Libros, who is head of Seattle Public Schools’ Enrollment and Planning Services.
Under the new plan most students will be automatically assigned to a neighborhood school. The old plan, in contrast, required parents to rank the schools they wanted their children to attend, and students were assigned schools based on a complicated set of factors.
This is a significant change for Seattle, and Libros
is one of the architects of the plan.
Her career began teaching grade school in the gritty neighborhoods of inner-city Philadelphia. It was 1970, and Libros had been inspired to major in education by “a very dynamic superintendent.” There was “lots of excitement about changes” happening in education, Libros says, brought about by the ’60s civil rights era. “It felt like very important political work, to effectively educate poor and minority children.”
After nearly 40 years and a doctorate from Harvard, Libros’s career remains focused on the same thing: improving public education for all students, including the disadvantaged.
So how will Seattle’s new school boundaries be decided upon? They are “going to grow out of the data; that’s the key thing for people to understand,” Libros says. And the data will come from a handful of overlapping factors: proximity to schools, safe walking routes, barriers such as water, transportation, changing demographics, diversity feeder patterns between elementary and middle schools. Some seats will also be reserved at high schools for students living out of a given school’s boundary area.
The school board vote will come after maps are made available for public comment and a series of community-engagement forums have been held. Libros recommends keeping an eye on the district’s Web site for developments. As in the spring, her office is likely to be inundated with e-mails and phone calls.
“Right now, student assignment consumes a lot of attention and energy,” Libros says. “By bringing clarity and predictability, hopefully we can focus more on what happens when children get to school, instead of on all the logistics.”
How does she manage not only to cope, but, as one parent blogged, “to do her job superlatively, and with grace and calm”? Libros says she gets a charge from both the intellectual challenge of her work — and its importance.
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