Though her career in education has until now taken place outside West Michigan, Dr. Heidi Kattula has been familiar with East Grand Rapids Public Schools for quite a while.
Kattula, who became the new superintendent on Aug. 1, replaced Dr. Sara Magaña Shubel, who led the district for 12 years before retiring in July.
|Fun facts about Heidi Kattula:
Jobs outside education: Kattula worked at “numerous” ice cream parlors — her favorite flavor is vanilla, by the way –, as a nanny for the assistant dean of the School of Education when she was a student at University of Michigan, and as a lifeguard, where “I was not always the most popular person there, but I was the one in charge of keeping people safe.”
Family: She and her husband, Peter, have three children: Mariana, eighth grade; Andrew, fifth grade; and Joey, fourth grade.
Num-num-num: “I love food,” she said. During the interview, she name-dropped Krispy Kreme, Al-Bos Bakery & Meat Market, and Anna’s House. “I love to cook, and I love to eat. I’m looking for a good Middle Eastern grocery store.”
What kind of student was she in k-12? “I was in the office a lot, helping secretaries and administrators,” she said. “As long as I was busy helping, I was happy.”
Since 2012 she has been the treasurer of the International Baccalaureate Schools of Michigan, a small circle of districts, and was a principal in Bloomfield Hills when that district became the first in Michigan to receive the designation. IB schools focus on educating from a global perspective.
Later, Kattula recalled, “East was one of the only districts on the west side of the state that was exploring the designation.” Also, Bloomfield Hills and EGR are what the state calls peer districts — districts of similar size and socio-economic characteristics that meet regularly to share information and ideas about common goals and challenges.
“I got to see what they were doing as a high school principal, as well as from the central office,” she said.
So when the top post in EGR came open, Kattula took a calculated leap.
“I knew I wanted a superintendency, but I also wanted to be very intentional about where I went,” she said. “I also knew I would have my kids with me. … and this was a great place for them to be as well. I was really thrilled when the opportunity presented itself.”
A Michigan native, Kattula was born in Detroit and grew up in Houghton, in Michigan’s upper peninsula. After high school, she recalled, “I was looking into going into engineering or computer science, but it was really helping and working with people that I wanted to do. Helping people is really who I am at my core. Being able to help identify challenges and help solve them.”
She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, a master’s from Northern Michigan University, and an education specialist degree and doctorate in educational leadership from Wayne State University.
Kattula has worked in public education for 26 years: first as a high school math and computer science teacher in Ohio, where she also helped coach swimming, track, cross country and volleyball. She later was an assistant principal at Wayne-Westland Community Schools, and a principal and district administrator at Bloomfield Hills Schools.
Before making the switch to EGR, she was for two years executive director of district and school services at Oakland Schools, a regional education service agency that provides services for schools throughout Oakland County. That post was to develop “systems, structures, and resources to better support teaching and learning.”
She comes to the post — as Shubel did when she became superintendent, Kattula said — “very much instructionally focused.”
“I would still argue that we need instructional leaders as our superintendents, because that’s what it is all about: leading and instructing our kids,” Kattula said. “I come in doing a lot of learning, and then looking for ways to improve.
“We have to continue to grow, but we have to be able to manage that growth so we don’t take on more than is sustainable and effective.”
Listen to Students
She sees the superintendent’s role as one of “advocacy, for our kids as well as our staff,” she said. “Our state is still going through some trying times, financially. With the (school-funding) adequacy study going on, I really hope it will bring some more resources to schools that need them, as well as our enrollment. People are still leaving our state.”
As one example, Kattula confesses a “huge passion” for computer science education. At Oakland Schools last year, a $1 million grant helped that district embed computational thinking in elementary grades.
“We can’t just focus on higher ed” when it comes to computer classes, she said. “Our kids are never going to get to computer science in higher ed if they don’t have it sooner.”
She also is keen to find out what is important to students.
“I think student voice is really important, student agency is really important. I want to ask them, ‘What do you see, and what do you think are the areas to improve on?’ I’d like to see us systemically capture that to inform our practices.”