FEATURE ‌ Good Luck Maria, You'll Need It 

How do you solve a problem like Seattle?

Struggling schools, racial disparity, school board infighting, and inadequate state funding. The problems in the Seattle Public School System seem so familiar, it's hard to imagine what Charleston County School District Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson means when she says she's heading across the country for a "challenge."

One can only imagine that the draw is the money (a potential $50,000 bump from her Charleston salary), but Dr. Maria should be careful what she wishes for.

Seattle's candidate search alone looks like a four-year disaster. In 2003, the Seattle School Board formed a 30-member citizen group to vet four finalists for the position. There were lots of public meetings and lots of vetting until the whole thing fell apart, with members of the citizen group jumping ship and all four finalists withdrawing their names. The position was handed to interim superintendent Raj Manhas and he has remained in the position since. He announced last fall that he would leave this August.

In the latest search, the Seattle board corrected itself with a controlled interview process and whirlwind courtship with limited public input that actually garnered community praise for producing results — any results. After selecting Goodloe-Johnson and Philadelphia Schools' Chief Academic Officer Gregory Thornton as the finalists, the school board quickly scheduled invitation-only forums for each candidate and, days later, visited each of the districts, making the final decision in a little over a week.

Starting the search, the school board developed a list of characteristics for their ideal superintendent, including someone who has led a diverse, urban public school district; has an ability to improve student performance and reduce the achievement gap; understands the institutional factors that contribute to the achievement gap; and has demonstrated sound fiscal management.

Another priority was that the next superintendent be experienced in K-12 education. Seattle hasn't had an educator at the helm since 1995. Though it has worked diligently in recent years to clean up its financial mess, going from a $35 million deficit three years ago to having $26 million in cash reserves, the Seattle district was looking for someone who can make large inroads in academic performance as well.

Seattle Board President Cheryll Chow says she was particularly wowed by Goodloe-Johnson's success in narrowing the achievement gap at a growing number of Charleston schools.

"That spoke volumes for us," she says.

Last year, the Seattle board voted 5-2 to close seven schools, a move that led to a failed petition to the county judge by the Committee to Stop All School Closures to have the five members who voted for the closures removed from office. More school closures are possible in the future and Goodloe-Johnson told community leaders during her visit that it seems reasonable considering the large number of small schools and the financial burden of running them all.

And board bickering, nothing new for Goodloe-Johnson, will likely greet her when she gets off the plane. While the board was lauded for making a unanimous decision on the two finalists, it doesn't appear that will last. The Seattle Times noted in a recent editorial that "Narrow viewpoints on the board have turned academics into an either-or issue: Either support struggling students or cater to high achievers. Seattle's next superintendent must do both."

The key will be to get the board to work as a team, Goodloe-Johnson says.

"I asked the board if they're willing to work together and they are," she says. "They really haven't had an opportunity to work on that."

In 2002, Seattle launched a three-year plan to close the achievement gap. But last year's results from Washington's version of the PACT had 73 percent of white 10th graders passing all three sections, compared with 23.8 percent of black students.

Seattle has also had its share of trouble handling racism. Last spring, the district posted a message on its website about equity and race relations pointing to "planning for the future, emphasizing individualism, and defending standard English as examples of cultural racism," wrote the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The district removed the message, claiming the meaning was muddied because of a lack of context.

At a recent community meeting, one black Seattle school principal told the crowd that the white people in and around her school made her uncomfortable. Goodloe-Johnson was asked about the instance by the Seattle press but declined to comment because she hadn't personally spoken to the principal.

During her visit to Seattle earlier this month to pitch herself, Goodloe-Johnson talked up her work in establishing standard curriculum countywide, mandating after-school and summer programs for struggling students, and her strong support for pre-kindergarten programs.

She said her first goal will be to get out to Seattle and see what is already in place and to discuss the district's future with teachers, parents, and community leaders.

"The media out here keeps asking if she has a plan," Chow says. "She has a plan — her plan is to listen."

One benefit will be that the core support staff for the administrator is already in place, unlike in Charleston, where Goodloe-Johnson had to find her accademic and finance chiefs.

"It's nice, because when I came here and it wasn't here, that was a whole new stress level," she says.

While no one can begrudge Seattle for stealing our star, one must wonder where Charleston can look for an administrator to wrangle with the same struggles here.


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