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Wednesday, May 16, 2007 - Page updated at 02:02 AM

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Academic chief tries to make grade

Seattle Times education reporter

When she visits a school, Carla Santorno wants to see a globe in every classroom. And student stories written on a computer, and a list of daily subjects that include math and science.

Hired last year as chief academic officer of Seattle Public Schools, Santorno, 56, is responsible for what kids learn and how they learn it. And if her plans move forward, Seattle's future classrooms will have a lot more of what Santorno envisions, especially standardized lessons in math, social studies and reading.

Her most conspicuous effort so far -- establishing a uniform math curriculum at the elementary-school level -- has been difficult to develop and met resistance from parents and teachers. Her proposal, which the School Board is scheduled to consider tonight, is something of a compromise between two distinctly different approaches.

But it also represents a step toward a centralized system, something newly hired superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson strongly advocates. A districtwide curriculum would mark a huge departure for Seattle, which has touted school-based decisions for years.

Santorno is confident the changes will improve grades and ultimately put Seattle Public Schools graduates on a path to college or employment. Despite being contacted by headhunters for other jobs, she wants to stay, in part, to take credit for Seattle's success.

"I want my name next to it when it happens, I'll be honest," she said. "I think we can pull it off here."

Routine visit

Carla Santorno

CHIEF ACADEMIC OFFICER, Seattle Public Schools

Age: 56

Salary: $150,821 annually

Family: Married with three children.

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 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 as curriculum director for Boulder Valley schools in Colorado.

Source: Seattle Public Schools

Touring a school with Santorno is like watching opera with an aficionado. She knows what to look for and can pick out the subtleties.

On a recent Thursday, Santorno and 25 district staff members descended on Concord Elementary in South Park, a routine visit to judge everything from math instruction to whether student art on the walls reflects geometry skills. The school received high marks after the review, but there was room for improvement.

Santorno wants every elementary-school classroom to have a library of 500 books, and the district has allotted $1.4 million to make that a reality for kindergarten through second grade next year. But at Concord, many teachers did not have grade-appropriate reading, and kids couldn't tell whether they were picking up a picture book or a chapter book.

Observing a reading class, Santorno stopped by a student's desk and discovered his textbook was not the one officially adopted by the district. Instead, a vendor had sold the text directly to the school.

That's a practice Santorno wants to stop.

As it is now, Seattle teachers select textbooks and materials almost on an ad hoc basis.

For example, the district offers two math textbooks for elementary schools. But teachers are free to use their own material, so, Santorno said, she has no idea how math is taught in classrooms across the district.

That means she can't offer teachers help from headquarters, Santorno said.

"The goal is less about getting everyone on the same page than in getting [teachers] support," she said.

A long time coming

Santorno said she was clear from her first day that she wanted to implement a districtwide curriculum, but it's been a long time coming.

In 2005, an instructional-materials committee was formed by the district to focus on choosing a uniform math program. For years, debate has raged between those who support so-called "reform" math, which stresses a conceptual approach, and advocates of the traditional method, which focuses on calculations and memorizing formulas.

Kids entering middle and high schools came with different skills, and that made teaching tough, said Sharon Rodgers, a math-committee member who now leads the Seattle Council PTSA. But people argued about which strategy was the best, and both sides could point to data and studies to prove their point.

"There are a lot of emotions about it. That's why it's taken this long. There's a lot of decisions to what goes into a world-class math curriculum," Rodgers said.

Middle schools adopted a math program this year. Santorno recently announced that elementary schools would use a reform-math textbook for an hour, coupled with traditional-math instruction for 15 minutes. Schools can request a waiver, but individual teachers can't. The cost of implementing a new elementary math program: $1.3 million for textbooks and materials only, and every elementary-school teacher must be ready to teach it by September.

Changes to high-school math programs are still months off.

"When I first came to Seattle, I visited schools, and they said, 'We need more support, but you're not going to tell me what to do,' " Santorno said.

The benefits of district support for teachers and students will outweigh the loss of freedom, she said, so she had to take a firm line: "Will I bend to decreasing your ability to be creative? Yes, I will."

High marks

John Warner, co-chair of a community advisory committee that came up with a list of recommendations for the district last year, gives Santorno high marks, though it was too early in her tenure to see improvements in student achievement, he said.

However, Warner credited her with stating clear academic goals: kids ready for kindergarten, third-graders reading at grade level, seventh-graders ready to learn algebra, ninth-graders ready for high school, 10th-graders passing all parts of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), seniors ready for college or work.

Santorno "is very direct, very candid. Her ego isn't out on her sleeve," Warner said. "She has the right amount of humility, but I'm impressed with her self-confidence."

Richard Mellish, principal of Schmitz Park Elementary and president of the Principals Association of Seattle Schools, said he appreciated Santorno's emphasis on principals as the top instructional leaders.

For the first time, Santorno has asked principals to report for professional training for two weeks in August.

That could crimp vacations or time spent in school preparing, Mellish said. "There is a lot of apprehension, but officially our association is trying to say, 'let's give it a shot.' "

Also unknown is how Santorno's academic plans will play out in the classroom and how she will work with her new boss.


Goodloe-Johnson was a high-school principal in Boulder, Colo., in the early 1990s when Santorno was in charge of the district's curriculum.

When she met with reporters last month, Goodloe-Johnson cited her support for greater centralization: "If you look at any of the research for school districts that have improved, clearly the first thing that has taken place is a standardized core curriculum."

Still, Santorno is likely to make adjustments when Goodloe-Johnson takes the helm.

Raj Manhas, the current superintendent, came from a financial background, and Santorno was often looked to as the teaching expert. But Goodloe-Johnson is an educator herself, so Santorno's role likely will change.

"With his [Manhas'] finance background, he gave me some leeway. I got to make some of these decisions. The shift will be more joint decision-making," Santorno said.

"She's the boss. When push comes to shove, I'll do what she asks me to do."

Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company



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