San Diego Unified superintendent finalists vow to prioritize equity and closing opportunity gaps for students
The San Diego Unified School District’s two superintendent finalists said schools have not done enough to serve the most disadvantaged children and outlined at a public forum Feb. 26 the strategies they would deploy, ranging from “grow-your-own” teacher programs to enrolling more students in advanced courses.
Susan Enfield and Lamont Jackson are vying for the superintendent job vacated last year by Cindy Marten, who left to become the U.S. deputy education secretary.
Enfield has been the superintendent of Highline Public Schools, a Seattle-area district of about 18,000 students, for the past nine years. She previously was chief academic officer and interim leader of Seattle Public Schools, a director at Pennsylvania’s education department and a district administrator in Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, Wash. She also was a teacher in Northern California.
Jackson has been interim superintendent of San Diego Unified since May. A product of the district, he has worked in SDUSD for more than three decades as a teacher, principal, human-resources chief and an area superintendent.
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Whoever gets the superintendent job will become chief executive of California’s second-largest school district with about 95,000 students, 15,000 employees and a $1.7 billion budget.
At the two-hour public forum at Wilson Middle School in City Heights, the candidates answered questions submitted by community members. The forum was attended by about 150 people and was streamed online.
At the beginning of the forum, Jackson spoke about how he grew up in a biracial family and didn’t know his identity, feeling too light-skinned to be Black and too dark-skinned to be White.
“I don’t think any of our children should be in a space to not know who they are. ... That’s why I’m passionate about education,” he said.
He then described how his grandmother who had raised him died while he was in high school. Two years after that, he said, he lost his best friend, who was imprisoned after being involved in a triple homicide. A few years later, his sister was shot and killed by one of his students, Jackson said. Then when Jackson was 23, his father died at age 44. Gasps from the audience echoed around the auditorium as Jackson recalled those events.
“As I speak on core principles of finding my voice and helping others find theirs, you need to know why I’m passionate about that: It’s because of the many lives that I’ve lost and the many lives that stepped in to close that gap to pave the way for me to stand on this stage,” Jackson said.
When answering a question about how they would lead the district and make decisions, Enfield said leadership is not about trying to win everybody’s approval but listening to the community, making a decision and then explaining why the decision was made. It also involves being willing to admit mistakes and correcting course, she said.
“Authentic listening and engagement is really important, and not lip service,” Enfield said.
Jackson said it’s important that students have a say in decision-making. He also said he is willing to do work on the ground rather than just directing others.
“If painting needs to happen, I’ll paint,” he said. “If teaching needs to happen, I’ll teach. If following needs to happen, I’ll follow.”
Enfield and Jackson’s attitudes, priorities and ideas about how to serve students overlapped on many fronts.
Both spoke at length about equity and expanding opportunities for disadvantaged students, especially Black and Latino students and those with disabilities and who are learning English. Both spoke about the importance of reducing suspension rates, giving students access to more rigorous courses, using grading practices that give students more chances to show they know the material, and expanding early-learning programs such as pre-kindergarten.
When answering a question about closing opportunity gaps for disadvantaged students, Enfield recalled a time a high school student who dreamed of going to Harvard University asked Enfield to write a recommendation letter. Enfield said she was heartbroken when she saw that the student’s transcript contained no advanced courses.
“I knew looking at it that despite the fact she was brilliant and brimming with potential, there was no way she was going to get into Harvard. And that was not on her. That was on us,” Enfield said.
Enfield said schools need to be honest about their practices that exclude students from opportunities, such as the ability to take advanced courses. When she arrived at Highline in 2012, two of the district’s four high schools had no Advanced Placement courses. She said she has worked to expand access to advanced courses.
“It’s about the belief that we have in our children and how we convey or do not convey that, and how do we give them access to opportunities or deny them access to opportunities,” Enfield said.
Jackson similarly spoke about the need to eliminate gatekeeping practices, such as enforcing prerequisites for rigorous courses, that are denying access to students.
“All we’re doing is stratification of our system, and we want not to do that,” he said. “We want our most marginalized students in the most rigorous courses.”
Dr. Enfield, superintendent of Highline Public Schools in Washington, spoke about closing the achievement gap, navigating pandemic mandates and tackling staff shortages.
Jackson said he had participated in and created student support programs that provided tutors, helped students learn how to study, assisted students with their homework and grades, and checked in with their teachers.
“That is the recipe to close the achievement gap: high expectations, believing in all children, providing access to rigorous curriculum with support and monitoring,” he said.
Both Jackson and Enfield talked about training new teachers from within the school district through grow-your-own programs.
Enfield said her district has a program that invites and trains bilingual special-education aides to become dual-language teachers and is creating a similar program to train special-education teachers.
Jackson spoke about how he became a teacher through a past grow-your-own program at San Diego Unified that sought to increase the number of teachers of color. He said such a program would help address a teacher shortage exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Jackson, San Diego Unified’s interim superintendent, spoke about closing the achievement gap, navigating pandemic mandates and tackling staff shortages.
To improve teacher recruitment and retention amid a nationwide educator shortage, Jackson said wages should be raised to show that teaching is a valued profession and an attractive option, particularly for first-generation college students.
Enfield said the issue is not just having attractive salaries and benefits but also working conditions that enable teachers to do their jobs better. That means hiring a full-time counselor, social worker, nurse, psychologist and family liaison for every school, Enfield said.
The San Diego Unified board, which will hire the superintendent, began interviewing the two candidates in a closed session after the public forum. The district says the board’s pick will be announced in mid-March.
People can give feedback about the candidates on the district’s superintendent search website until Tuesday, March 1. ◆