Michele W. Hummel

Her Charm Leads a System by JAY P. GOLDMAN

Once a month for most of the last 4½ years, Michele Hummel has devoted a few Saturday hours to an open coffee house. Some have been hosted in private homes. Others have taken place outside a Kroger's supermarket, at a local swim club, even inside a dentist's office. Her purpose--to learn what's on the minds of parents and citizens--never varies. Neither does her upbeat manner.

As superintendent of the 1,500-student Madeira City Schools just east of Cincinnati, Hummel has the good fortune to preside over one of the highest-performing student bodies in Ohio and in an affluent community that showers its public schools with attention and money.

But public involvement works both ways. Hummel found herself embroiled in a short-term controversy last fall when the five-member school board upheld her recommendation to suspend for 10 days a high school senior who had posted a message in a school bathroom about a phony bomb threat. The student was on course to be the class valedictorian this spring.

Hummel says the district's zero-tolerance policy for threats and acts of violence offered no leeway. What really troubled her is that no parents raised a similar stink when the board suspended seven students earlier under the same policy, even after she sent home letters to district parents about two of the banishments. "People wanted extra consideration given only to the highest-achieving student," she frets.

Her success at managing the district's affairs stems largely from her personable and engaging leadership style. Hummel realized during her nine years as a principal that the optimum model of leadership today is a shared one, with all stakeholders having a chance to participate. She applies that approach to its fullest.

"In the last 10 years, I've become a student of communications. I've tried to look at [other school system leaders] and say, 'This is something I want to do myself' or 'This is something I never want to do.'"

The monthly coffee houses, which usually involve at least one board member, serve as one significant channel for ensuring decisions about policy and practice aren't made in a void. "When I first came here, we did a great job with one-way communication," Hummel says.

The superintendent's sincere and generous entreaties to the public often leave the board smelling sweet, admits Patricia Gentile, a board member since 1988 and its current president. "The short version is I think the world of her," she says.

Madeira's superintendent is applying her persuasive powers to the state level, where she has influenced the way the legislature and the state education agency relate to local school leadership. As the legislative chair of the Buckeye Association of School Administrators, Hummel has twice recently testified before state lawmakers about proposed changes to honors diplomas and teacher certification. She's found legislators starved for meaningful information and insights from practitioners.

"Rules get handed down and superintendents say, 'Don't they have any idea how anything works?'" says Hummel, a member of the AASA Leadership Advisory Committee.

She also has contributed to the reorganization of the Ohio Department of Public Instruction, having served on a top advisory panel to the new state superintendent.

Back home, Hummel's winning personality even has touched the normally hard-bitten press. A writer for the Cincinnati Enquirer who has gotten to know the superintendent says: "She's very personable, very encouraging and someone who never misses the chance to say something about anything I do."

The fact Hummel has maintained her positive presence over the last eight months is remarkable. She was diagnosed with breast cancer last June and underwent a mastectomy the following month. She's been enduring a schedule of chemotherapy and radiation treatment and self-injections of hormones to stimulate her white blood cell count ever since. With no new discoveries, she expects a full recovery.

"I was operated on a Tuesday and back in the office on Thursday," she boasts. "I'm not the kind of person to dwell on things. ... It's been helpful in putting things in perspective."

A superintendent in the neighboring Sycamore school district, Bruce Armstrong, marvels how the "almost saintly" way Hummel has handled her personal crisis. "She's got five times as much to worry about as the rest of us superintendents, but she's 10 times as positive," he says.

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: