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Story posted November 16, 2011
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 had spent the previous seven years in the state education department.
Aware of the poor finishing results and achievement gaps of the diverse 14,500-student school district (where 46% of students receive free or reduced price lunch and 14% are considered transitional bilingual) located 11 miles from Seattle on Puget Sound, Heuschel came to the job to make a difference.
Heuschel decided that the way to improve academic achievement was to initiate a “data carousel” to review demographic, perceptual and academic data of students. By creating this carousel, the 1,800 district staff now had an “undeniable reality check” in how they were teaching and treating students. 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.
When staff felt discouraged, she remained firm but supportive, saying, “A leader’s role is to convey hope and confidence in staff.” Her 23 building principals met with her as a group twice monthly for four hours to discuss instructional progress. They focused on what quality instruction looked like, including the understanding that content may vary, but good instructional strategies will look similar in every classroom. To gain commitment, Heuschel made herself personally accountable for learning and incorporating new practices. She participated 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.
For the past two years, the graduation rate in Renton has soared to 93 percent, according to state data. Although the achievement of Hispanic and African-American students (who make up 18% and 20% of the student population, respectively) still lags behind that of white students, the gaps are closing.
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."
Ultimately, Heuschel believes that her “fierce focus” and high expectations enabled the staff at Renton to usher in the wholesale changes in the culture, instructional practices and processes needed to improve student achievement.
Additional data from GreatSchools.org and Washington State's Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.