Come July 1, Seattle Public Schools will have a new leader.
After poring over more than 60 applications, and then winnowing that down to five candidates for initial interviews, there are now just three contenders to become the district's next superintendent.
The Seattle School Board is expected to vote next Wednesday to enter negotiations with its preferred finalist. There’s Ann Arbor Public Schools superintendent Dr. Jeanice Kerr Swift, former Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, and Dr. Andre Spencer, superintendent at Hamilton School District Two in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The three were in Seattle earlier last week to visit schools, meet with the media and participate in a public forum, before sitting down for final interviews with the school board on Friday. The board is expected to vote to enter negotiations with their top choice on Wednesday afternoon.
Here's what the trio vying for the job had to say when asked about what drew them to the position now held by Larry Nyland, and how they would address the biggest issues facing the district today.
Swift has held the top job in Ann Arbor since August 2013, and was named 2018 Michigan Superintendent of the Year in October by the Michigan Association of School Administrators.
"I am interested in Seattle because it’s a diverse, urban, successful school district, and is built on educational excellence and is committed to that idea of equity and opportunity for all students," she said, adding that she's attracted to the "leadership challenge" of managing continued growth in the city.
She was also drawn by what she says is the community's broader commitment to public education, citing the push for free community college via the expansion of the 13th Year Promise Scholarship program, and plans to give every Seattle high school student a free ORCA card.
"The community clearly has come together with a commitment and with a will and with a resolve around ensuring that our public schools are opportunity rich for all students," she said.
Swift said the successes in her current district are a product of community engagement, something she thinks resonates in a system of any size.
"I feel very strongly that no one knows better the things we do well and the challenges we have than those people who live and work in our community, those people who bring their children to our schools everyday, and those people who work inside of our system," she said.
In addressing existing inequities, Swift deferred on giving specifics for what she'd do in Seattle, saying it would rely on community engagement, but noted that in the past her current district has put high-interest programming in what she said are some of the "most vulnerable" neighborhoods.
"That has served to cross-pollinate a more heterogeneous socioeconomic mix," she said.
If selected, Swift said "full-on engagement in the community" will be the first order of business.
"What you would see from me is clear and open and consistent communication around matters of children and matters of school," she said. "What you would see from me is follow through on questions that come and on issues that arise, and what you would see from me is someone who is deeply committed to the children and to our community and will follow through to ensure that remains our priority."
Likely the most well known of the three candidates — for her remarks at the 2012 Democratic National Convention and her 2016 congressional run against now-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke — Juneau managed a $1 billion budget over 450 schools and more than 150,000 students during her tenure as Montana's Superintendent of Public Instruction.
But now, more than a year removed from the end of her second term, the 50-year-old says she's ready to get back into an educational leadership role. Though she had conversations elsewhere, "it never really felt right," she said, but Seattle had what she called the right priorities, including equity for all and closing the opportunity gap.
"I really think Seattle is poised to create a system where students are ready to enter the global economy, because they are the global economy, they are the ones who are going to lead that conversation, they’re going to lead those efforts because they are from all over the place," she said.
Juneau discussed the Graduation Matters Montana initiative she launched in 2010, which leveraged outside funding to help drive state graduation rates to historic highs (86 percent in 2015) while cutting the American Indian dropout rate by 30 percent. She attributes the success of that effort to bringing communities together to push forward the best ideas that fit the context of their individual districts. In some cases that meant peer mentoring programs, in others graduation coaches.
"[We] really tried to build a longer table and not a higher wall, so people could sit and really talk about their education system," she said.
Despite not having district-level leadership administrative experience, Juneau said the organizational system in place in Seattle reminds her of the state education agency in Montana, and that the opening in Seattle provides her with the same opportunity to divide her time between the office, meeting with organizations and educators, and traveling around the district to see the work that's happening first-hand.
"Leadership needs to be around for a while and longevity helps create stability, and Seattle Public Schools I think really does need that longevity in their next leader, and so I’m committed to sticking around to see it through," she said.
Her policy visions come with the belief that everyone should have voice, she said, and the understanding that involvement on the district-side should go beyond just outreach, to making real connections with families.
"I've never met a parent that did not want something better for their child," she said.
Juneau also came away with some valuable lessons from her ultimately unsuccessful congressional run. It's not always about policy and where you want to lead, she said, but also about how you approach relationships.
"I learned that you can inspire a lot of young people by doing the right things," she said.
Spencer is the lone candidate of the three with experience in a large, urban district, having worked for more than a decade in Baltimore City Public Schools in a range of teaching and administrative roles, before a three-year stint as a regional superintendent in the Houston Independent School District prior to taking his most recent job in January 2013.
He's also drawn interest for a leading role in other districts, as one of two finalists for the top job in Cincinnati Public Schools last year, and for the superintendent position in the Rochester City School District in New York in 2012.
Boasting a 90-day entry plan focused on "listening and learning as much as I can possibly listen and learn," Spencer said he was interested by the "boldness" that he sees in the district.
"The boldness around really tackling a big issue around equity and around the opportunity gap and closing the opportunity gap, which I think is just absolutely phenomena," he said. "It isn’t a problem that’s only prevalent in Seattle Public Schools, it’s across our country, but I think Seattle Public Schools has done an amazing job with tackling this issue."
When asked about neighborhood schools, and addressing the inequities that exist in accessing quality instruction and programs, Spencer said it’s "critically important" to leave choices up to parents and students, but that it all starts with making sure that every school is a great one.
"If there are neighborhood schools and parents and students want to select the neighborhood school, perfect, we’re going to make that a great neighborhood school," he said. "If there’s another school that parents and students choose to select, that’s their choice; we’re going to make that a great school. There will be great schools throughout the entire city — you decide what is best for you."
More than 70 percent of students in Hamilton's current district qualify for free-or-reduced lunch rates, but allows every student to take an Advanced Placement class of their choosing, driven by their interests and hopes for the future.
"All of that is driven by the student and by the parent," he said. "I believe that’s the way it should be, and I believe that’s where the educational component falls into the category of how do we make every single school a great school, providing that access to the quality instruction that any other school would get that would be considered a great school."
But it all hinges on communication from the start.
"I don’t believe anyone wakes up in the morning and says that they don’t want to do a good job," he said. "I think everyone wants to do a good job. I think sometimes people don’t know what that good job looks like."