If you haven’t been to the Seattle Public Schools’ Web site to check out Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson’s five-year strategic plan, unveiled last spring, you might be forgiven, even if your kids attend a public school in Seattle. On the surface, it looks and sounds like the same old, same old: educational excellence, equity and curriculum alignment — admirable goals, but at a certain point it begins to sound like the teacherspeak in old Peanuts television specials: wah-wah-wah.
But is it the same old story? I do go to the SPS Web site (regularly, in fact) and recently, I’ve begun to wonder: What has been the same old, same old for Seattle Public Schools for more than a decade? In part, the story has been one of crisis management, scandal management and hiring businessmen to fix a vexing budget — one that seems to shrink even as the needs of district families have grown.
For me, awareness of Seattle Public Schools began with the near-simultaneous events of the birth of my daughter and the untimely and devastating death of John Stanford. Since then, I have watched the school system try to find a leader to love. I remember wondering, in 1998 when Stanford died, how the Seattle School Board would replace him — or if it would have the wisdom not even to try. We all know what happened. It hasn’t been the best decade for the school system.
This is not to disparage the work of Joseph Olchefske or Raj Manhas. They were in the unenviable position of running Seattle schools in Stanford’s shadow. Olchefske worked for Stanford (which, in retrospect, might have been his strongest job recommendation). Manhas was the district’s chief operating officer under Olchefske and was appointed interim superintendent while the school board conducted a national search. Manhas was offered the job permanently after all four national candidates withdrew themselves from consideration. Good for him for taking it under those circumstances.
The Seattle School Board, wisely perhaps, hired what some have called “bean counters” to try to fix the failing budget. The bean counters in question, whatever their shortcomings, were not exactly set up for success, as we parents like to say. It might also be true that without these men, Goodloe-Johnson wouldn’t have been as well set up for success as she is.
After John Stanford’s death, I think the entire Seattle Public Schools community entered a period of mourning. I know Seattle Public Schools parents who still tear up at the mention of Stanford’s name. Looking back, it seems that Olchefske, for better or worse, was a John Stanford stand-in. He helped the system through the first stages of grief.
Because Raj Manhas did much difficult financial work, including school closures, and because he exited gracefully, Superintendent Goodloe-Johnson has had the luxury of having to deal only with budget and educational issues — with no scandal, crisis or mourning looming over her first year. This setup is quite different from those Olchefske and Manhas inherited.
Maria Goodloe-Johnson is different from the three businessmen who preceded her. She is an educator to her core — and if you doubt it, notice the method she used to create the strategic plan, also a departure from what we’ve seen in the past decade.
The first thing to notice is that she spent a year observing and documenting. She made very few changes. This is so remarkable — to take time to get to know a place and a culture before making big decisions and changes.
In one year, Goodloe-Johnson immersed herself in learning about the district and allowing the district to get to know her. She visited all 93 schools, took a bus tour of each reference area — along with parents and educators from those areas — created new positions to support the vision of excellence for all, and solicited feedback and comments from the community. This last one — soliciting feedback and comments — is another remarkable choice.
In preparing her strategic plan, Goodloe-Johnson has done three important things. She has:
- Engaged stakeholders. From parents to students to teachers, Goodloe-Johnson has gotten to know us and asked us what we think.
- Been transparent about the work she’s doing. Check out the very comprehensive strategic plan area on the SPS Web site, which the district constantly updates. (I assure you — not the same old story.)
- Sought third-party evaluation of programs in the district and other aspects of district functioning.
Transparency, evaluation and engagement are all hallmarks of a great teacher.
What is it we really want from a teacher? We want a teacher to engage — to know our children and hook them into learning. We want a teacher to be transparent, to share the thinking behind the method, to narrate student progress. We want the teacher to evaluate and be open to evaluation. Amazingly, incredibly, in the method she employed to create the SPS strategic plan, Goodloe-Johnson is modeling what she hopes to create in Seattle Public Schools.
Even though the strategic plan isn’t finished yet, and even though I might not agree with it — or parts of it — when it is finished, I believe in it because of the method Goodloe-Johnson is using to create it.
The strategic plan was one of the accomplishments that earned Goodloe-Johnson a 10 percent pay increase and a contract extension last summer. Cynics might say that this big pat on the back looks like school board members congratulating themselves (and I know more than a few teachers who deserve a 10 percent pay increase), but it might also be true that board members see a path ahead that is stable and thoughtful.
Whatever prompted the school board to seek out a teacher in the last national search, they should be commended for this wise choice. In Maria Goodloe-Johnson, Seattle Public Schools just might have a leader to respect, if not love. And, so far, her tenure is certainly not the same old story.
Christine Johnson-Duell is a poet, a former college undergrad instructor and a Seattle Public Schools mom.