Santa Rosa City Schools has tapped Santa Clara educator Socorro Shiels as the district's new superintendent.

Shiels, who turns 41<NO1><NO> Thursday, currently is assistant superintendent of educational services in the Morgan Hill Unified School District, located south of San Jose and a little more than half the size of the Santa Rosa district. She replaces Sharon Liddell, whose resignation is effective June 30, ending nine years with the district.

Shiels was unveiled as the top choice Wednesday amid a gathering of staff members and trustees, but the board is not expected to vote on her three-year contract until its June 27 meeting.

"We interviewed four candidates, all very well qualified but she was so outstanding, so knowledgeable in what is going on in education on a state and national level and so clearly able to work with and communicate with people that the fit just seemed really good," said Bill Carle, vice president of the board.

The school board considered 12 applicants, according to the firm hired to lead the search for Liddell's replacement.

Shiels has served as a bilingual teacher, high school vice principal and elementary school principal.

She said Wednesday that Morgan Hill's changing demographics are similar to those in Santa Rosa where Latinos now make up about 45 percent of the student population and nearly half of the district's 15,000 students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Both districts are in Year 3 sanctions for failing to meet federal academic targets laid out under No Child Left Behind.

The goals in both communities are "creating schools that are responsive to the community and changing demographics," Shiels said.

Wesley Smith, the Morgan Hill superintendent, said that "What the community there needs to understand is she is coming from what she is going into. Our Latino population is changing exponentially."

Smith credited Shiels with spearheading in the course of one year an adjusted schedule that dismisses students an hour early one day a week so teachers can stay on campus and collaborate. The time is made up on other days. She also led the charge to create a K-8 music and math magnet school and a dual language Spanish immersion elementary school, both of which will open in the fall.

All of those projects involved extensive public outreach, Smith said.

"You are getting one of the bright stars in public education," he said. "I think she is going to have a storied career and your students are going to benefit from that."

Shiels comes to Santa Rosa after a tumultuous school year for the district that saw the board effectively close Doyle Park Elementary School — a move that ignited acrimony among board members and the community.

Andy Brennan, president of the Santa Rosa Teachers Association, said Shiels is an impressive hire. He predicted she will be tested almost immediately in light of a difficult budgetary climate and a large number of vacancies at the district office.

"She is walking into a bit of a difficult situation," he said. "Right now it's obvious that you see divisions within the board on the direction and where to go. One of her primary responsibilities will be to heal those rifts and .<th>.<th>. to provide leadership. That will be a major challenge."

"I'm hoping she will be a breath of fresh air," said board member Laura Gonzalez. "I think we probably need some new eyes in the district office, new ideas and I think that her background shows her to be culturally knowledgeable and culturally sensitive as the demographics of our district change."

Ron Woolf, the Morgan Hill school board president, said Shiels made a name for herself as an administrator who reached out to teachers, parents and district officials.

"She is a real work-together type person; she listens," he said.

Shiels is the director of the administrator mentor program of the California Association of Latino Superintendents and Administrators.

"She is very, very knowledgeable in the area of assessment and accountability," said Sal Villase?r, executive director of CALSA. "She is very firm in her belief that kids, regardless of their background, can all be taught and all can achieve."

Shiels is a resident of Sacramento. She has spent weekdays in Morgan Hill, traveling home to Sacramento for weekends, she said.

She remains open to moving to Santa Rosa. "We are going to explore our options," she said.

Board members said they hope she eventually moves to the area.

"I think she intends to," Carle said.