HARVARD -- Jessica Huizenga's dense, four-page resume shows a pro-active, upwardly mobile professional journey since graduating from Erskine College in South Carolina in 1997 and includes several subcategories under the work experience header and professional development programs she participated in recently, such as the New Superintendents Induction Program at Harvard University.
The resume also lists community leadership initiatives and recognitions Huizenga received during her tenure at Blanchard Middle School in Westford, where she was principal from 2008 to 2010.
Currently interim superintendent of schools for the Freetown & Lakeville Public school District, Huizenga holds a bachelor's degree in history/secondary education, and both a master's in educational administration and an Ed. D in leadership in schooling from UMass Lowell obtained in 2003 and 2008, respectively.
Besides administrative posts in Westford and Freetown & Lakeville, where she was assistant superintendent for student and professional learning before taking the top job, Huizenga was principal of Robert Adams Middle Schools in Holliston, Mass., for two years and assistant principal of the Randolph Community Middle School for the two previous years.
She began her career in Rockwell, Texas, as a classroom history teacher in grades 7 through 12 and after six years there moved to Plymouth, Mass., where she taught high school history. During her year there, she was department chair and facilitated curriculum development.
The resume also lists an array of awards received and presentations she has given. In 2012, she was graduate student speaker at the UMAss Lowell commencement.
Huizenga touched on some of these honors and achievements when addressing the gathering in the Bromfield School Library. Speaking of her current job, she characterized herself as a turn-around specialist.
Unfunded mandates have been a challenge there, as they are across the state, she said. But rather than creating "huge, long-term strategic plans" that reach too far and fall short, she favors moving ahead with "more focused ways" to target scarce resources. That vision and acting on it has gained her "trust and support" among faculty, she said.
Seguing to how school improvement plans can garner taxpayers' support, she said schools shouldn't be an enigma with an investment attached, but rather should foster sharing. Gaining cooperation by starting from within, next steps include working with town officials, parents and the larger community so that everyone is engaged.
That said, it's not easy, she added. "We're all so busy ..." But she doesn't think Harvard's challenges are unique. If she gets the job here, she'd aim for a "solid plan" with vision, recognizing the system's strengths and weaknesses and setting benchmarks to head in the right direction.
Q: In terms of touch decisions, can you name a situation you faced and how you managed it.
A: Fortunately, there were no major crises on her watch in Freetown & Lakeville, but the district did frame plans after the "horrible Newtown tragedy," she said, referencing last month's shooting attack and killings at a Connecticut elementary school.
The district faced financial problems, though. "We have a $2.1 million deficit," she said. "So what do we do?" Options included layoffs, larger class sizes and outsourcing custodial services. A town financial team was formed to work with the schools and the process she described was public, so nobody was surprised when cuts came, she said.
Due to this "constant communication" between school committee and town officials, $300,000 of the school shortfall was pumped back in to high school programs, she said. Not that the problem is solved. She anticipates more "difficult choices," including layoffs, Huizenga said. "That's the job."
Noting "good and bad" times in its dealings with administrators, HTA member Kathleen Doherty asked how Huizenga envisions her relationship with teachers.
"I see the union president every day," Huizenga answered, describing a give-and-take relationship in which they trouble-shoot, problem solve and consistently communicate. She would not be an "aloof" superintendent, she said. Far from it. But there are times when she would have to "hold the line," and can do that, too. It's all about compromise.
Asked to elaborate on an earlier remark about the "21st century classroom," Huizenga said she would go for technology equipment when and where needed but given fiscal realities, the bottom line may be as much about philosophy as it is about the latest devices.
The future of education won't be characterized by "four walls and regurgitated information." It will be global, creative, teaching kids how to analyze, argue a point, sell it and themselves. The question then becomes, what kinds of classroom experiences will foster that kind of learning? "We need to build thinking skills," she said.
Huizenga described how she found significant savings in her school system's bloated special-education program, which tended to slap every struggling student with an individual education plan (IEP) rather than look at some learning problems as "gaps" instead of "disabilities." Sometimes, less costly solutions were more effective, she said, such as inclusion, tutoring and/or other targeted strategies outside the special-education umbrella.
But a parent said she feared a new superintendent with such cost-conscious zeal. "You seem like a straight-shooter," she said. "But I have two kids with IEPs and you scared the hell out of me."
While the philosophy made sense, she asked how the distinction was made between a disability and a gap and who would make that decision.
Clearly, Huizenga was talking about a problem that existed in Freetown & Lakeville that she moved to correct. "I think we were overusing the process due to lack of classroom support," she said.
Kids either meet established education goals or they do not, and she favors "weaning" those that are improving from IEPs as soon as possible. In some cases, students might not need an IEP at all, with "certain accommodations" to make them successful, she said.
Given her can-do approach and impressive professional background, Huizenga was asked if she ever failed. One principal's position was "not a good fit," she said and she learned from it, but rather than a failure, per se, she prefers to call it a learning experience.
Not every attempt is successful, and kids must learn that, too. That it takes "grit" to accomplish goals and risk-taking to get anywhere worth going. "We must be more tolerant of failure," she said.
Asked by a teacher if she was not "excited" to stay on in her current job rather than switch now, Huizenga said she'd accomplished what she set out to do and was just as excited about the challenges and perks Harvard has to offer, including working closer to home. As a Burlington resident, her commute would be cut in half, she said, and she could spend more time with her husband and young son.