Community meets likely new superintendent
The community got a chance Monday night to meet the heir presumptive to the superintendency of the Tigard-Tualatin School District, just hours before the school board was scheduled to vote on her contract.
Susan Rieke-Smith mingled with staff and faculty, parents and students, and community members for 90 minutes before the board meeting, at an informal reception at Tigard Elementary School.
"I'm overwhelmed by the generosity at the end of everyone's busy day," she said of the crowd that gathered. "It tells me a good deal about how this community wraps itself around the schools."
Rieke-Smith has a doctorate in education and has worked for 18 years as an educator at all three school levels. She began her career in 2000 in the Salem-Keizer School District where she taught fifth grade, English language learners and worked in Title 1 schools (a federal designation for schools that serve low-income communities). Between 2004 and 2007, she served as an assistant principal at McKay High School in Salem and in 2007, she became principal of Houck Middle School in Salem. At Houck, she was recognized as Oregon's 2011 Middle School Principal of the Year.
From 2011 to 2014, she served as Salem-Keizer's director of instructional services.
She joined Springfield Public Schools as assistant superintendent in July 2014. In April 2015, she was named interim superintendent and was permanently appointed to lead the district in November 2015.
Education is a second career for Rieke-Smith. After nearly a decade as a nurse, she went back to school to earn her Masters of Arts Teaching in 2000 from George Fox University.
Jill Zurschmeide chairs both the Tigard-Tualatin School Board and the superintendent search committee. She said Rieke-Smith got the offer because of her passion for students, schools, equity, health issues and issues surrounding poverty.
"She's such a good fit for the community."
The process was handled in secrecy — No other candidates were publicly identified. Zurschmeide said that decision came about because of Rieke-Smith. "It was directed by the fact that we were considering a sitting superintendent. We didn't want to put her in a bad spot with the Springfield board, especially if she didn't get the offer," she said.
There also was a delay of a few weeks after the district announced that a finalist had been selected. Zurschmeide wouldn't comment on the nature of that delay. "We hit a few speed bumps and had to figure out our next steps," she said.
Among those in attendance were Tigard High School sophomores Meghan Turley and Jessica Woolfolk, who have become activists opposed to gun violence in schools. Both marched with thousands of others in the March 24 rally in Portland.
They both have been meeting with government leaders, such as U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici and State Rep. Margaret Doherty. So on Monday, they came to find out what they could about the next superintendent of their district.
"It sounds like she supports the activism," Turley said. "She seemed focused on opportunities to communicate with us."
Woolfolk agreed. "We talked about student leadership and student safety. She's someone who can elevate the students, help the students."
Tualatin City Councilor Paul Morrison said he'd studied Rieke-Smith's background and believes she'd be a good fit. "We don't need change here. (Current Superintendent) Ernie Brown is terrific," he said.
He also was impressed in Rieke-Smith's background in nursing. "She's going to treat, and then she's going to observe, to make sure the 'patient' is okay," he said.
Mercedes Walker, who works in Tualatin High's special education arena, agreed. "She's been a nurse. That's my thing, right there," Walker said. "Then she studied and got into education. Because you never stop learning."
Assistant Superintendent Karen Twain said one of the top priorities for the immediate future is the increasing diversity of the student body. "We need to catch up to that, in terms of our staff, our instruction," she said. "Sue has a short-term and long-term vision to see we get there."
Rieke-Smith praised the district for having — and investing in — a strategic plan. "It's a long-term, 10-plus-year commitment to have strategic planning, and sticking to it," she said. "It takes a good three years it to take hold, and another three to five years to bear fruit."
She also emphasized that she is an advocate for public schools in general, and not just one district. "I will die on the hill of public schools," Rieke-Smith said. "We are the bedrock of Democracy."