Profile: Mary Alice Heuschel

A Change Agent With ‘Fierce Focus’

by LIZ GRIFFIN

In 2006, the year Mary Alice Heuschel took over the reins of the Renton School District in northwest Washington state, more than three in 10 students were failing to make it to their high school graduation day. That fact clearly concerned Heuschel, who’d spent the previous seven years in the state education department.

HeuschelMary Alice Heuschel

Aware of great attributes as well as the poor finishing results and achievement gaps of the diverse 14,500-student school district, Heuschel came to the job to make a difference. Her commitment to ensure all children learn has led to great progress.

Heuschel’s can-do thinking and actions have garnered outside attention. She was one of four finalists for 2011 National Superintendent of the Year. For the past two years, the graduation rate in Renton, located 11 miles from Seattle on Puget Sound, has soared to 93 percent, according to state data. Although the achievement of Hispanic and African-American students still lags behind that of white students, the gaps are closing.

“Some people say that (all children can learn), and some people get it done,” says State Rep. Marcie Maxwell, a member of Renton’s school board when it hired Heuschel.

The pressure to change the way 1,800 district staff supported student learning was driven by data, which the superintendent says provided an “undeniable reality check.” Heuschel initiated a “data carousel” to review demographic, perceptual and academic data.

“It revealed the under- and over-representation of groups in particular programs, stark differences in behavioral referrals, suspensions and expulsions among groups of students, and detailed data about student achievement,” she says. Heuschel believes her “fierce focus” and high expectations ushered in wholesale changes in the culture, instructional practices and processes in Renton’s schools. When staff feel discouraged, she remains firm but supportive, saying, “A leader’s role is to convey hope and confidence in staff.” Her 23 building principals meet with her as a group twice monthly for four hours to discuss instructional progress. They focus on what quality instruction looks like, including the understanding that content may vary, but good instructional strategies will look similar in every classroom. To gain commitment, Heuschel makes herself personally accountable for learning and incorporating new practices. She participates as “lead learner” in the professional learning communities with teacher teams and principals, drawing on a 28-year career that began as a special education teacher.

Even as resources have shrunk by more than $18 million over the past four years and forced tough program and staff cuts exceeding 30 positions, Heuschel has maintained positive vibes with the teachers’ union through her candor. “I said, ‘Here are the (finance) books — if you can find a nickel to spare to support staff, let’s do it.’”

Bob Bridge, owner of the Toyota dealership in Renton, is sold on Heuschel’s style in managing a $137 million budget to good effect. “She’s won the trust of all of us, Rotary, the chamber (of commerce), the mayor. [One reason why] is she’s very data-driven, and she gets results,” he says. In addition to her stint at the state level, she has taught at Department of Defense schools in Germany, served as an assessment specialist in Hawaii, taught science and math at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and worked as an elementary principal in Yelm, Wash. These experiences mean Heuschel is adept at overseeing a community’s schools in which 89 languages are spoken.

Colleague Chip Kimball, superintendent in nearby Lake Washington, praises Heuschel’s “relentless” focus. “Mary Alice is a leader of leaders,” he says. “She has significantly improved the performance of low-income and minority students in an environment of substantially reduced funding.”

Liz Griffin is managing editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: lgriffin@aasa.org

BIO STATS: MARY ALICE HEUSCHEL

Currently: superintendent, Renton School District, Renton, Wash.

Previously: deputy state superintendent, Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, Olympia, Wash.

Age: 49

Greatest influence on career: A high school teacher, Chuck Mello, defined the importance of education for me. Through music, drama and his personal example and mentoring, he inspired students to believe in themselves.

Best professional day: The day a child was reading his lesson to me. He suddenly looked up and said, “I get it, Mrs. Heuschel, I can read!” It was magical.

Books at bedside:Building Sustainable Leadership Capacity edited by Alan M. Blankstein, Paul D. Houston and Robert W. Cole; A Hidden Wholeness by Parker J. Palmer; Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls by Noel M. Tichy and Warren G. Bennis; and the family bible (from Grandma Anderson)

Biggest blooper: In the first year of my superintendency in Renton, I asked the cabinet leadership to help me make holiday cookies for our schools and departments as a thank you gesture. I anticipated the scaled-up version (4,000 cookies) of the family recipe could be accomplished in two easy nights; it took five.

Why I’m an AASA member: AASA helps me stay informed on national school leadership issues, so I can take an active, informed position on national education issues and policy development.