As a chemistry teacher in suburban Chicago, Denise Herrmann teamed up with a biology teacher to create a project-based curriculum that combined the disciplines over two years.
As principal of Middleton High School near Madison, Wisconsin, for the past eight years, she led the teaching staff through a critical self-reflection process following a well-publicized 2013 cheating incident.
As the new principal of Gunn High School, Herrmann said she plans to immerse herself in the culture and look for opportunities to ease the high-pressure environment.
"I'll be listening and watching for opportunities students have to take some risks and make a few mistakes and not be penalized for it to let them dust off their knees, get back up and keep at it," Herrmann said in an Aug. 1 interview in her new, still-bare office on campus.
"I'm sure there are many of those, and when I find them I'll give the teacher a high five and say, 'Great job.' Where I see it missing, that will be an opportunity for me to coach the teacher and say, 'What would happen if we inserted that kind of (lower-stakes) feedback at this point?'"
Herrmann arrived in Palo Alto July 17 on the eve of Gunn's hosting of 1,200 teachers and administrators from around the world for the 2014 Google in Education Summit.
"I wanted to be here for that," she said. "I wanted to be a learner and to say, 'Welcome to our school.'"
After spending three days at the Google conference she flew back to the Midwest for her 30th high school reunion in Shabbona, Illinois, where she graduated in a class of 33 students and married her high school sweetheart, a fifth-generation farmer.
From the couple's home in Wisconsin, he could drive to the 600-acre farm in Northern Illinois in less than two hours. After helping his wife settle into their new home in Menlo Park, he'll return to Illinois for the corn and soybean harvest and be back for Thanksgiving, Herrmann said.
Lifelong Midwesterners, the couple's decision to move to California was "somewhat spontaneous," she said.
While visiting one of their daughters in San Francisco at the end of March, "We thought we could see ourselves retiring here," Herrmann said. "And then we were like, 'We don't have to wait 15 years to live in a place we want to live for the rest of our lives,' and I said I'd just start keeping my eyes open for an intriguing position."
Ten days later she spotted a posting for the opening at Gunn and, after querying California friends about Palo Alto, decided to apply for the job.
"I enjoyed the fact that there were community members and students and all different facets of staff in the interview," Herrmann said. "I was able to establish a really positive rapport with the team ... and after the interview I thought this could be a really good fit."
Gunn search team members were unable to comment on their first impressions of Herrmann, having taken a pledge of confidentiality about the interview process. Gunn PTA President Joy Hinton said she's been out of the country since mid-July and has not yet met the new principal.
A friend from Wisconsin described Herrmann as "a tireless leader who was instrumental in helping Middleton High School become the No. 1 high school in the state."
Perry Hibner, executive director of the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District Education Foundation, said Herrmann "made it her goal and the goal of every staff member at MHS to make sure every student was college and career ready by the time they finished high school.
"She set the bar high and MHS is a better place for it," Hibner said.
Herrmann said she views one of her main jobs as "bringing out the passions of innovative teachers here at Gunn and helping them do great work.
"You're working with the community to build a good learning environment for students. It makes all the difference for kids when you know the parents value it, the City Council will work with you, everyone in the community is working together to help kids be safe and good learners."
Herrmann was tested last December when 250 seniors had to retake a calculus exam following allegations that students had sold photographs of test questions. The culprits were never identified, Herrmann said, but the highly publicized incident led the school to change some of its practices.
"There were some practices that were very, very trusting of students, which I like I like to trust students but to the point where it was really putting other teachers who might be using that same test at risk," she said.
"One of my big learnings was how important it is to have conversations with teachers about assessment practices and the use of technology in the classroom. How you communicate your expectations to students can be very different from teacher to teacher."
Like Gunn, Middleton High School is a high-performing school that this year ranked as Wisconsin's No. 1 high school in the U.S. News & World Report list.
In such high-pressure environments, Herrmann believes schools can help reduce students' temptations to cheat by offering more frequent, lower-stakes assessments rather than fewer, higher-stakes tests.
Referring to the "mindset" research by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, Herrmann said high-pressure environments can "inadvertently reinforce (students') idea that they have to get an A and will resort to cheating before they'll admit they don't know it to teachers, to their peers, to their parents."
With only six calculus tests per semester at Middleton, "that made each one really important," she said.
She advocates more frequent assessments that give students a chance to learn from mistakes and "have a chance to relearn before a high-stakes test.
"That's what we learned from students the more frequent, low-stakes checks for understanding we can do, the less likely it will be for them to feel the pressure to cheat," Herrmann said.