Retiring Superintendent feels positive about her time with TTSD, district’s future

Dr. Susan Rieke-Smith
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After six years of leading the Tigard-Tualatin School District (TTSD) through an era of unprecedented challenges in American public education, Dr. Susan Rieke-Smith announced in February that this year will be her last as superintendent.

“I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to lead this district of exceptional staff and educators,” she said in a letter to the community. “Our collective work in support of the 11,000 young people we welcome into our schools each year is a daily testament to the power of public education. The collaborative work in advancing a true culture of acceptance, inclusion, safety, and belonging will be an accomplishment of which I am most proud.”

Rieke-Smith’s final day is June 30, ending 25 years in education built on the twin pillars of community collaboration and data-informed decisions.

Tigard Life sat down with Rieke-Smith to talk about the highlights and challenges of the past six years, and some of the obstacles ahead as students continue to recover from the impacts of Covid-19.

“Education, public education particularly, has been my life’s passion,” she said. “For me, there are four rights that, as human beings, we (should) expect: a full belly, a roof over your head, access to quality medical care, and to be educated – to read, write, and fully participate in society.”

Rieke-Smith transitioned from health care to education after realizing that education is the keystone to achieving better outcomes for people in all other aspects. She called herself an “accidental superintendent” who entered education to work directly with kids and was progressively promoted as her data-driven approach was recognized for swift results.

She praised both the school board and the community as committed partners in the schools, noting, “This community collaboratively worked together to help get the Student Success Act and student initiatives up and over at the state legislature in 2019.”  

Anything is possible in a collaboration where people take the time to understand each other and see past their philosophical differences.  

Leadership, she says, “is about bringing community together. It’s about a coalition of the willing. It is about tapping into the ideas and the resources that we collectively have across this district. It is not one person saying because I said so.”

Though the lens in recent years has often focused on tumult, like a mid-year report showing falling math and reading scores and attendance rates and Hazelbrook Middle School’s high-profile student-on-student assault last fall, Rieke-Smith remains largely positive about her time at the helm and her outlook for the district.

During her six-year tenure, “we successfully brought home all of the projects from the 2016 bonds,” she said. Projects that included renovations to both high schools, a new Twality Middle School, and two new elementary schools, Templeton and Art Rutkin, “bringing home close to $300M worth of taxpayer dollars and commitment.”

She counted increased student representation on the school board as a win for the whole community.

“One of the things I’ve been thrilled about in this district is the fact that we’ve had the opportunity to expand the number of students that sit on our board so that their lived experiences are in the room where policy and governance are being made. Not only are they learning how to do that, but they also are impacting the type of policy so that it is student-forward,” she said. 

Before stepping into public education, Rieke-Smith spent more than a decade in health care as a trauma and public health nurse. She started her career in education in 2000, teaching fifth-grade English language learners in the Salem-Keizer School District.  

Four years later, she moved into administration at McKay High School as an assistant principal, and in 2011, while helming Houck Middle School, she was recognized as Oregon’s Middle School Principal of the Year. 

Rieke-Smith replaced then-Superintendent Earnie Brown in July 2018, following three years at the helm of Springfield Public Schools.

She retires at the end of a year in which parents circulated a recall petition, citing a lack of discipline in the classroom that mirrors pandemic impacts seen around the nation. 

The search for an interim superintendent is underway, with the TTSD school board finalizing its candidate criteria during a March 18 meeting.

That person will likely oversee the implementation of the consequence “matrix” currently being drafted to accompany the recently codified Student Acts of Aggression or Violence policy.

Work on the policy, which is included in a new student rights and responsibility handbook, was already underway last fall when the assault at Hazelbrook fast-tracked its completion.

Rieke-Smith’s successor inherits the job of steering the schools back toward pre-pandemic norms with a healing student population.

“Children bear those scars,” she said. “First, you have to understand the needs of the child, then you take a look at your own skill sets and ask: ‘Where do I need to further build my skills so that I can meet this child where they are.’ That is the work that’s in front of us.”

As for her work, Rieke-Smith says she has accomplished all that she could and felt the time was right for passing the baton.

“I believe that I have done the work that I was called to do, and I have done it as faithfully as I can. Has it been perfect? Absolutely not,” she said. “I don’t think any of us can say that we ever do things exactly the way that we had hoped to be able to do it, but I know that I’m certainly blessed, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.”

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