Career Path to Superintendent of Tacoma Public Schools

Posted by Ronald | April 4, 2016  |  No Comment

Carla Santorno is the superintendent of Tacoma Public Schools in Tacoma, Wash. At the 2016 National Conference on Education in Phoenix, Ariz., Santorno received the national Women in School Leadership Award sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Association of American School Administrators. Santorno earned a Bachelor of Arts in Elementary Education and Teaching from the University of Northern Colorado and a Master of Arts in Elementary Education and Teaching from the University of Colorado at Boulder. An excerpt of the interview with Santorno follows:


What career path led to your profession of superintendent?

I have had very traditional public school experiences. I taught first, fourth, fifth and sixgrades, coached K-12 teachers and was an elementary principal in Denver Public Schools – an urban district with approximately 80,000 students. Additionally, I was a national consultant in outcome-based learning for more than 10 years. Outcome-based learning – a precursor to today’s standards movement –called for less seat time and more attention to student proficiency. I rubbed shoulders with gurus including Madeline Hunter, Charlotte Danielson, Bill Spady and Judith Little. I worked with school practitioners all over the United States – from small rural districts with 22 teachers in their K–12 systems to urban centers such as New York City with 600 intermediate teachers. I saw hundreds of classrooms and honed my personal vision and repertoire of excellent teaching strategies.

That experience allowed me to transition to the Curriculum Chief in Boulder, Colorado – an affluent, low-poverty school district that underserved its high-poverty students. What a challenge! But I learned so much about the importance of exhibiting your core values and ethics in a highly political environment. After five years in Boulder, I returned to Denver and served as the director of grants, director of curriculum and area superintendent. I worked in North East Denver, a high-poverty, primarily minority section of Denver. I led efforts to raise the rating of 13 schools rated “F” by the state.

I retired from Denver due to a personal desire to change the achievement of students through aligned school systems, effective instruction and a laser-like focus on students. My husband said he would go with me as long as it never snowed in the new place. We went to Seattle Public Schools as chief academic officer – and a record snow storm occurred in our first winter! It was in Seattle that I decided a superintendency was in my future. I needed control of all systems to make a difference. I moved to Tacoma as deputy and was named superintendent three years later.

What educational background and/or professional training are essential for this profession?

A great educational leader must be what bestselling author Jim Collins describes as a Level 5 Leader. I think character, values, ethics, relationships and a commitment to social justice are the most important parts of running a school district.

Yes, I believe a part of my success is a thorough knowledge of PreK-12 education systems and experience in all kinds of settings. My success is partially connected to my ability to speak with experienced teachers and principals. I am well-networked. I make it a point to join networks that get together to routinely talk about current education issues. I have been in three urban districts and one suburban district – the main issues are the same. I am fortunate to have learned and benefited from the successes and failures of leaders in districts all over the country.

Successful school leaders can come from many walks of life. For example, I can say with confidence that a military retiree can be a great superintendent if he or she has the character needed and has those around him that know education and have a proven track record. There are excellent leadership programs offered throughout the country. No matter how much of a veteran you are, a great leader is committed to continuous learning!

What influenced you to pursue a career in your profession?

I wanted to be a teacher since I was a little girl. I taught school to my neighborhood friends in my basement when I was six years old. Later, as I worked as a professional teacher, I continued to see high poverty and kids of color being left behind. I kept thinking I could help more children if I had a wider sphere of influence. I am comfortable with the influence I have now. I listen. I take advice. I pay attention to research. I care only about the impact we have on our children!


What professional, civic or community organization do you belong?

I am on the following community boards: United Way of Pierce County, Foundation for Tacoma Students, Tacoma Community Foundation, College Success Network, KBTC Public Television, Tacoma City Club and South Sound Junior Achievement.

I also belong to our local Rotary Club, the Black Strategy Roundtable, the WILO Women’s Group and the local NAACP. I attend several philanthropic fundraisers. I live in my community, and I am a part of all of our events.

What are some of your accomplishments as superintendent?

The challenge of changing graduation requirements has plagued our state and district. In 2010, our district had hit an all-time low with a 55 percent graduation rate. The community was extremely dissatisfied, the educators were frustrated and the students were being left behind. My team imposed several strategies to dramatically change the results. For instance, we (1) developed a nationally recognized multiple measure accountability system. This system engages the community and provides 24/7, 365 day a year transparency of our achievement results—both good and bad; (2) developed a state-of-the art data system that identifies the specific needs of every child; (3) developed a Project Management Office to lead innovative ideas and school design; (4) redesigned our budgeting process to fund efforts that are directly aligned to our accountability systems and the strategic goals set by our School Board of Directors; (5) developed more than 50 meaningful partnerships with our community to support our students; (6) developed a state and federal legislative agenda that advocates for the whole child – attending to the social and emotional needs of students so they can achieve better academically and (7) built a systemic approach to teaching the whole child through a 10-year partnership with the Center for Educational Effectiveness at the University of Washington Tacoma.

What advice do you give to students who desire to pursue a career as a superintendent?

Be prepared to make the job your life. Spend time in schools. Find a successful superintendent mentor so that you can learn what to expect, how to lead and how to navigate the challenging land mines. Read. Network. Learn. Formulate your personal mission and vision statement. Get the formal education you need.

What is your typical work day?

The best thing about being Superintendent of Tacoma Public Schools is that this job is different every day – and I love variety. There is nothing typical about it except it starts early and ends late and includes weekends. Looking at just the last few months, my schedule has included: student performances, classroom visits; legislative and court testimony; professional conferences; meetings with bus drivers, teachers, paraprofessionals, principals, superintendents, the board, cabinet, council, elected officials, District PTA Council; Neighborhood Council and speaking engagements on the local, state and national level.

Dr. Ronald Holmes is the author of 12 books: Jacob’s Dream! “A Lesson on Numbers and Birds,” “Jacob’s Dream! A Lesson on Alphabets and Continents,”How to Eradicate Bullying,” “Education Questions to be Answered,”Current Issues and Answers in Education,” “How to Eradicate Hazing,”Professional Career Paths,” “Your Answers to Education Questions,” “How to revitalize the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc.” “Completing the Dissertation: Tips, techniques and real-life experiences from Ph.D. graduates.” “Jacob’s Dream, A Story of Careers for Children” and Jacob’s Dream, A Story of Animals in Africa. He is publisher of “The Holmes Education Post,” an education focused Internet newspaper.  Holmes is a former teacher, school administrator and district superintendent. He can be reached at [email protected]






Leave a Comment