Early test for new school official

Seattle's new chief academic officer, Carla Santorno, started making plans to reorganize her staff before she finished unpacking the boxes in her office.

Santorno said she likes a challenge, and she overcame many in her job overseeing some of the toughest schools in Denver. She's passionate and experienced and has a reputation for being determined and insistent on high standards.

"There are people that are just, they're office people. She's not," said Mary Sours, a principal who worked for her in Denver.

The chief academic officer (CAO), who began the job earlier this month, is in charge of policies regarding curriculum, teaching and assessment and manages the 46,000-student Seattle district's 100 schools. The CAO arranges for professional development for principals and teachers and oversees programs for special-education, advanced and bilingual students. The district's five education directors report to her.

Santorno's energy and experience could be crucial to Seattle Public Schools, where every School Board member has been elected within the past five years and the superintendent, Raj Manhas, is an industrial engineer with a banking background and no previous experience running a school district.

While some critics say Manhas and the board are too passive, Santorno's staff had the opposite experience with her. She was determined, they said. If she rubbed anyone the wrong way, said Sours, it was because her decisions were final. No amount of arguing would get her to change her mind.

"She is very knowledgeable, and she's very determined. And ... she's very professional," said Lynn Spampinato, an assistant superintendent in the Pittsburgh Public Schools who worked with Santorno in Denver.

Seattle district officials hope Santorno's guts and expertise will help the district push through a difficult period that began three years ago when former superintendent Joseph Olchefske was forced to resign because of a series of budgeting mistakes that led to an unexpected $35 million budget shortfall. Now, to head off another multimillion-dollar deficit, the board is working through a slow and controversial process to close 11 schools.

"Carla has a great combination of maturity and energy that I think will really help our district," said School Board President Brita Butler-Wall.

Santorno replaces former Ingraham High School principal Steve Wilson, who held the job for less than two years. Manhas asked Wilson to step into the job after former Chief Academic Officer June Rimmer left in March 2004.

Rimmer was the last administrator left from Olchefske's top staff. In her five years with the district, she worked on a districtwide K-12 curriculum in literacy, social studies and science and pushed for more open discussion of how educators' beliefs about race and culture influence student achievement.

Santorno's work on curriculum faces high stakes. Starting in 2008, students will have to have passed the Washington Assessment of Student Learning to graduate. About 60 percent of Seattle students are expected to fail.

"She walked into a volatile situation," said Wendy Kimball, the president of the Seattle Education Association. "But I think that she's a clear thinker. I think that she really wants to improve the system for both the student and the teachers, other support staff."


Sharon Rodgers, who has two children in the district, said she has realized the importance of a good academic leader while working on a committee to choose the district's new math curriculum.

"It's become very clear to me that it's really all about the implementation," she said. "You really need everybody to pull together."

Manhas said Santorno is "a perfect match" for the district. Her commitment to equity among schools and students should help Seattle close the achievement gap among students from different ethnic and racial backgrounds.

At a meeting last week with high-school teachers and principals in West Seattle, Santorno promised teachers support and more materials, but she told them they might have to give up some creativity for the sake of consistency in the curriculum taught across the district.

She said she'll also encourage teachers to spend more one-on-one time with kids who are falling behind. She said the district should push for extra class periods and after- and before-school programs so students can catch up.

And she wants more students to take rigorous classes.

"I intended to come in where there's a challenge and where if I don't show up to work, it makes a difference," Santorno said.

As a kid growing up in Denver, Santorno loved school so much that she would hold classes for the neighborhood kids in her basement.

She was the first in her family to graduate from high school, she said, and had no trouble deciding to go into teaching. She took a job in the district where she graduated.

"I just love that miracle of watching that light come on," she said. "I was just excited about how personally powerful it was to get information."

At-risk students

Santorno started as an elementary-school teacher in Denver, then became principal and eventually worked her way up to assistant regional superintendent. She oversaw the 73,000-student district's northeast quadrant, which had a high population of students in poverty, students who lagged behind state standards and students who spoke English as a second language.

When she left this year, she was eligible for retirement, she said, and the district was undergoing a reorganization that would have required her to reapply for her job.

Teachers in Denver said she was collaborative and willing to try creative approaches to helping kids learn.

Spampinato remembered when she was a principal in Denver and wanted to try a new reading curriculum. It was an expensive experiment and some in the district questioned it, but Spampinato said Santorno remained her steadfast ally.

"She was a very strong supporter for risk-taking, and I think when our principals see that they have that type of support, they get motivated," she said.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

Carla Santorno, new chief academic officer for Seattle Public Schools, meets with staff members at West Seattle High School. (KEN LAMBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES)
Carla Santorno

Age: 55.

Salary: $142,653 annually.

Family: Married with three children. Two are grown and a third, 17, is a junior in high school.

Education: Bachelor's degree in elementary education from the University of Northern Colorado; master's degree from the University of Colorado, Denver; and a teaching certificate.

Work history: Santorno had worked as an area superintendent for Denver Public Schools since July 2001. Before that, she held several other jobs in the district, including chief of curriculum services, teacher and principal. She also worked briefly for Boulder Valley schools as the curriculum director.

Source: Seattle Public Schools