Fearless of Heights

Fearless of Heights

Kathleen Macy, Stillwater (Minn.) Area School District

Kathleen Macy knows a thing or two about perseverance. When her family moved from a Los Angeles suburb to a Minnesota farm when she was 14, she got used to sun-up to sundown work rather quickly. From her first paid job picking radishes by hand, to being the first in her family to graduate college, Macy took pride in her work.

When the former science teacher was hired to lead Stillwater, an affluent Minneapolis/St. Paul suburb, there was much to celebrate. The district was considered in the top 15 percent in the country among members of the Northwest Evaluation Association with similar demographics.

Not content to rest on the laurels of past success, Macy had an academic audit done. Then she and the board set a goal: To be in the top 1 percent among similar districts by 2006. Macy has since championed tougher accountability and new initiatives for the schools on her watch--knowing the resulting harvest will be abundant.

What's more, Macy made herself personally accountable, requesting a performance review directly tied to student performance. "My mission is to expect high achievement ... and to create the conditions for each student to achieve those expectations," she says. "All students have greater options and choices in their lives."

"You'll Lose Your Job for This"

While the school board and community may agree with Macy that students deserve the best, they can vehemently disagree about how that happens. Case in point: The district's controversial one-to-one laptop initiative at Oakland Junior High. "She was under tremendous pressure to abandon the program," says Principal Tom LeCloux, who brought the idea to Macy early in 2003.

The top 15 percent wasn't good enough. She wanted her district in the Top 1 percent.

She thought there was enough evidence to prove the program would support student learning, but the community was dubious. While the cost was controversial, LeCloux explains, Macy's support was unyielding. "I told her, 'Kathleen, you'll lose your job for this.' And she said, 'Tom, the question is not my job. I will support you until we get this program in place.' " The school board signed off on the program this September.

Lights, Camera, Communication

Macy's local cable television show is evidence that she's fearless about answering tough questions on finances, school report cards and other topics. Twice monthly Talk of the District episodes are aired several times a week and archived online. "She has an uncanny ability to reach out and touch people, and as a result, they want to work with her," says Christy Hlavacek, who chaired the Board of Education from 2000 to 2004. "Her strength comes from the people around her."

As for rejuvenating strength, Macy spends time outdoors and relaxes with classical music and page-turning books. Recent reads are two memoirs by Smith College's first woman president, Jill Ker Conway.

Educational Ambassador

Having great expectations for Stillwater has meant traveling well beyond district borders. In October, Macy and 14 peers did a Superintendent's Seminar-Fulbright Exchange in Germany. Through lectures and tours of schools in various socioeconomic areas, she gained a new outlook on home. She says, "I left with a great appreciation of the full range of opportunities and expectations that American students have."

Inspirations

* Professional: Watching people become all they can be because of opportunities she has been able to influence. Seeing teachers, support staff and principals create conditions that enable student success.

* Personal: Her father's World War II experiences. A sharp shooter in the U.S. Army, he fought in France and Germany, earning a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. After his service, he worked for 20 years in Los Angeles before earning enough to return to his home state of Minnesota.

Moira Cotlier is a freelance writer based in New Haven, Conn.


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