Denise Herrmann, who began her career as a science teacher, has been principal of Middleton High School in Middleton, Wisconsin — a town of 18,159 people — since 2006.
Herrmann was selected by Palo Alto school district officials and a Gunn "input" committee that included department heads, staff, parents and two students, according to the Gunn student newspaper The Oracle.
Herrmann's move to Palo Alto Unified comes on the heels of a widespread cheating scandal at Middleton discovered in December 2013, which resulted in the school forcing nearly 250 seniors to retake a calculus test. Administrators found that students had been using cell phones to take photographs of tests (which some then shared and sold), taken additional copies of tests from classrooms, bartered questions on tests to share answers and planned absences on test days to obtain test information.
In a letter to Middleton parents, Herrmann wrote that, initially, her administration only communicated to parents of calculus students who had been involved, but an investigation and letters sent in from students and parents revealed these practices were more widespread.
"We feel fortunate to have a wonderful student body whose academic record on multiple assessments is top-notch. We are hopeful that through our collaborative efforts we can determine the root cause of talented students choosing to participate in dishonest academic practices," she wrote.
Herrmann told the Weekly Monday that the school responded to the scandal in two ways: first, by examining existing policies and processes and implementing changes, such as banning cell phones during exams and issuing multiple versions of tests.
"But the more important thing we did was we really did a school-wide study into what kind of learning environment promotes or makes students think it's OK to cheat," she said.
She said the entire school read articles by well-known Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, who's conducted much research on achievement and success.
"We did a series of workshops for teachers, focus groups for parents and then instituted some ways for our teachers to credit more of the formative learning and not make some of the summative assessment so high stakes," she added.
For example, she said, for the calculus course in question, students' grades depended on only four major exams throughout an entire semester.
"If all assessment were performance-based (rather than test-based) and unique to each student, we wouldn't have to worry about cheating," she said. "It takes awhile to get there, but that's the ultimate goal."
Herrmann was "enthusiastically supported" by the Gunn teachers, students, parents and staff members on the selection committee, Superintendent Kevin Skelly said.
"Her years of experience leading a school similar to Gunn will serve the students and school community well," Skelly said. "I have rarely seen a closer match between a candidate's skills and the expressed desires of a school community."
Herrmann began her career in 1991 teaching science at St. Charles High School in St. Charles, Illinois. She became assistant principal of curriculum and instruction at St. Charles North High School in 2000 and continued there until 2006 when she was named principal at Middleton.
She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in chemistry from Northern Illinois University and in 2002 completed a doctorate in education from the same university, with an emphasis on administration and curriculum leadership.
"I am extremely proud to be selected as the principal of Gunn High School," Herrmann said in a statement. "Throughout the interview process my interactions with students, staff, parents and community members were positive, meaningful and focused on developing each student as a whole person. I believe this leadership position fits me well."
With an enrollment that was 1,960 last year, the size of Middleton High School is similar to that at Gunn, which was 1,842. Ninety percent of its 2013 graduates went to college, according to a 2013 profile published by the school. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the city of Middleton is more than 85 percent Caucasian, 5.6 percent Hispanic, 4.2 percent Asian and 3.5 percent black.
Current Gunn Principal Katya Villalobos has been hired to head the Palo Alto Adult School.