Seattle-area school leader faces off against longtime insider for San Diego superintendent job
Two finalists vie to lead California’s second largest school district
An award-winning superintendent from a suburban Seattle school district is competing against a local, longtime district administrator for the job of leading the San Diego Unified School District.
In a few weeks, the public will meet Susan Enfield and Lamont Jackson, the only finalists selected by the school board to replace former superintendent Cindy Marten, who left the district in May to become U.S. deputy secretary of education. Multiple community forums are being planned for Jan. 10 for members of the public to ask Enfield and Jackson questions.
Jackson, an area superintendent, has been acting interim superintendent since May. Enfield is the superintendent of Highline Public Schools in Washington state.
In an interview, Enfield said her mindset about education was inspired by her family: her grandparents, whose families emigrated from Portugal, put a high value on education despite not having extensive education themselves. Her grandfather never went to high school; her grandmother never went to college.
That’s why, Enfield says, she never makes assumptions about how much a family values their child’s education. Her family’s background also drives her to focus on equity, she said.
She finds the San Diego Unified job appealing, she said, because the district has stable leadership, including long-serving board members. And she likes that the last superintendent stayed for eight years; that has allowed the district to do good work, she said.
She also wants to return to California for personal reasons; she has family and friends in San Diego.
Although Highline is one-fifth the size of San Diego Unified, Enfield said she has experience leading a large school district from working at Seattle Public Schools, Washington’s largest district with more than 50,000 students.
But, she said, the challenges that Highline faces are the same as what San Diego and many other districts face.
“The fact that I’m familiar with the many challenges and successes the district has had on a smaller scale doesn’t preclude me from being able to address them in similar ways as I have done here,” she said.
Although Enfield has worked in the Pacific Northwest for more than a decade, she is a California native, born and raised in the San Francisco Bay area.
She taught high school English, journalism and English as a second language in northern California. About eight years into her teaching career, she enrolled in an urban superintendents program at Harvard University and then served as a director in the Pennsylvania’s education department, then in Portland Public Schools and in Evergreen Public Schools in Vancouver, Washington.
She became the chief academic officer and later interim superintendent of Seattle Public Schools from 2009 to 2012. Enfield said she declined to pursue the permanent superintendent’s job in Seattle because at the time the board had gained new leadership and she thought it best for that board to find a new leader.
For the past nine years Enfield has led Highline, a diverse district of about 18,000 students that surrounds the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, south of Seattle.
About 30 percent of students are English language learners, according to state data. Students speak 100 languages and many are immigrants or refugees, Enfield said.
About 40 percent of Highline students are Latino, 19 percent are White, 15 percent are Asian, 15 percent are Black, and 8 percent are multiracial.
By comparison, San Diego Unified’s 97,000 or so students are 47 percent Latino, 23 percent White, 9 percent Asian, 8 percent African-American, 8 percent multiracial and 5 percent Filipino.
About 61 percent of Highline’s students are identified as low-income by Washington standards; about 55 percent of San Diego Unified students are by California standards.
During Enfield’s tenure, the Highline district reformed its school discipline practices to suspend students out of school less often, she said. It also launched free full-day kindergarten before the state started funding it.
Its high schools worked to increase opportunities for jobs and internships for students, she said, as well as increase access to advanced courses, such as Advanced Placement and computer science. Highline raised its four-year high school graduation rate from 62 percent in 2013 to 84 percent in 2020, according to state data.
Some gaps persist among student groups, as in many school districts: Latino students, American Indian/Alaskan Native, and Pacific Islander students all had graduation rates below the district average. Black, Asian, White and multiracial students had above-average graduation rates of 88 to 89 percent.
During Enfield’s tenure, less than half of Highline’s students met state standards for math and for English language arts, although they improved markedly in English. In 2019, 48 percent of students met standards in English, up from 39 percent in 2015; but in math 35 percent met standards in 2019, down from 37 percent in 2015.
The Washington Association of School Administrators named Enfield superintendent of the year last month. Joel Aune, executive director of the association, said Highline is considered a leading district in Washington for addressing racism and equity in its schools. He had high praise for Enfield.
“She’s smart as heck, and she’s got a very energetic passion for the work and for the students in her schools. She wears that to work every day,” Aune said. “She’s willing to take a difficult pathway if it’s the right way for kids.”
Enfield announced in June that she was looking to leave Highline to work somewhere new and “move on to the next challenge,” she said.
Between Enfield and Jackson, Jackson holds a clear home field advantage.
Jackson attended San Diego district schools, graduated from San Diego universities and has worked for San Diego Unified for more than three decades.
He worked his way up from a basketball coach and teaching assistant to teacher, then middle school principal, then human resources chief, then area superintendent.
The day Marten’s nomination for deputy education secretary was announced, the school board announced it had picked Jackson behind closed doors to take over as interim superintendent.
Staff members who worked with Jackson said he is a charismatic, personable leader who remembers details about people’s lives and is willing to show vulnerability. In speeches he emphasizes equity for students as a primary goal.
“I think a lot of people in the district have positive feelings about Superintendent Jackson, primarily because he’s been part of our district for so many years,” said Kisha Borden, president of the San Diego Unified teachers union and member of the search advisory committee.
Even before the school board put together its 48-member committee to oversee the search for a superintendent, several administrators suggested Jackson for the permanent job.
“He’s been on the path to being a superintendent his whole career,” said Donis Coronel, executive director of San Diego Unified’s administrators union, in February. “I think we have a good candidate right under our nose here.”
Still, there have been some controversies during his time as interim leader.
Jackson drew complaints and criticism in November when he announced plans, a week beforehand, to make the day after Veterans Day a “mental health day off” for students and staff.
Some parents said the short notice left them in a bind for child care for that day. A day later, Jackson reversed course and said it would be an optional mental health day off for students, but teachers had to work. Some teachers said they felt they were being used like babysitters.
Jackson later apologized for causing confusion. Borden said the mishap was a lesson about the need for more transparency and communication from district leaders.
“That was a clear example where asking for input would’ve been helpful,” Borden said.
When asked how he would assess his time as interim superintendent, Jackson said in an email that he is continuing to lead and support efforts by educators to prepare students for the next grade level, college and careers while focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion.
“My focus has been to keep the district moving forward in the same positive direction it was headed when I started,” he said. “That means making sure we are doing everything we can to protect the health, safety, and well-being of our students and staff under challenging circumstances.”
When asked why he is pursuing the permanent superintendent job, Jackson said he is honored that the board chose him as a finalist.
“The San Diego Unified School District is where I grew up and attended school, and where I have dedicated my life’s work as an educator. It’s hard to describe what it is like for me to be able to give back to a community that has done so much for me, except to say everything I do is in the spirit of the African proverb Ubuntu, ‘I am, because WE are,’” Jackson wrote.
The school board is expected to meet behind closed doors in mid-January to select a new superintendent, who will debut their new role on Jan. 18 at the annual state of the district address.