Annette Freiheit

Annette Freiheit, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on female superintendents, will be the first female superintendent hired by Winona Area Public Schools. That's not the only challenge she will face.

Annette Freiheit comes from a humble family.

Her father did not finish high school. Her mother worked as a licensed beautician. They each played a role in shaping her down-to-earth, honest nature.

“My parents taught me how to work hard, be respectful of others and they will treat you that way,” Freiheit said. “That’s one of the foundations of my leadership.”

On July 1, Freiheit will bring that leadership to the helm of the Winona Area Public Schools when she takes over as superintendent. The school board Thursday approved her three-year contract, wherein her first year’s salary is listed at $149,000.

Freiheit will first inherit a summer full of referendum projects OK’d by voters last November, a task outgoing superintendent Rich Dahman said will be the most pressing issue to address with his successor. He’ll also advise her on making community contacts and meeting the staff throughout the district, and on weathering what is sure to be an at-times tough job.

“In any superintendency, there’s always difficult issues that you wrestle with, whether it’s budget issues, facilities issues, there’s always going to be things that people feel strongly about,” Dahman said. “You can always feel good about the work that you do if you give people an opportunity to to have their voices heard.”

Though she agreed that making connections will be an integral part of her first few months on the job, Freiheit is no stranger to getting to know what she’s getting into.

As an elementary principal in Hayfield, she took the coursework for the reading teacher licensure to help her better understand why children were struggling to read and how teachers could help. In her current job as superintendent of Pine City Public Schools, a smaller district in central Minnesota, she rode all of the district’s bus routes to familiarize herself with the landscape and personally meet each bus driver.

And also in Pine City, she, the city’s mayor and county officials banded together to take on the high poverty rate facing their community. They focused on three goals: healthy living, affordable housing and robust workforce development, and looped in as many programs and people as possible to make changes.

At the school level, Freiheit oversaw a program to help teachers and staff better understand how poverty can affect students’ brains and behaviors. After implementation, the district saw a 30% decrease in behavior-related office referrals. The district also tweaked its school lunch policy to ensure that students with unpaid balances were getting fed.

“There’s never a barrier. We’ll figure out a way,” she recalled.

Freiheit wrote her doctoral dissertation on female superintendents — and she will be the first one that WAPS has formally hired, as she was in Pine City. Kelly Halvorsen, former director of learning and teaching in Winona, served briefly as interim superintendent before Dahman was hired.

The gendered world of education fascinated her, Freiheit explained, in that 80% of teachers are women but the top administrative roles in districts historically belong to men. When she was a finalist for an earlier superintendent position, she heard that a school board member had wondered whether their district was ready for a woman to lead.

“We’re missing out on human capital and potentially really strong leaders,” Freiheit said. “It offers diversity of thought.”

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Dahman said it’s exciting for a woman to take over the role.

“It really does create a mindset that that the the leader of our school district doesn’t have to be restricted to one gender,” he said. “And I think that’s a great message.”

Even with the intention of listening first, there are some issues that Freiheit said jump out for her to tackle: earning community trust of the school district, working with a relatively unseasoned board and examining the budget, which has taken a hit in recent years as enrollment declines.

And though it won’t be an immediate priority as the summer construction projects unfold, Dahman said that guiding a bigger discussion on facilities likely lies in Freiheit’s future. When readying for the November 2018 referendum, stakeholders discussed the possibility of another referendum to address facility and maintenance needs once the current one comes off the tax rolls in four years.

“It does create a window for a decrease in the tax rate and an opportunity to kind of match that so that you don’t have a roller coaster effect with the taxes … trying to keep that more stable,” Dahman said.

At the board discussion where they unanimously voted to offer Freiheit the contract, members praised her ability to acknowledge areas where she needs growth, one of which is cultural competency — a critical piece of the puzzle as the district reviews the recent student climate survey, adjusts its dress code policy to curb bias and is working on closing racial disparities in discipline practices.

When asked how she’d address that gap, she said she will attend related workshops, as well as working with director of learning and teaching Maurella Cunningham, who is spearheading cultural competency training for WAPS staff this year.

Over the next month, Freiheit said she’ll use vacation time from her current district to visit Winona and begin her work with Dahman and with the board to ensure a smooth transition.

Shortly after Freiheit’s start date, board chair Nancy Denzer said representatives from the Minnesota School Boards Association will return to the district to lead the school board and their new superintendent in a goal-setting session, to help start everyone off on the right foot.

The date and format for that meeting has not yet been decided.

“We feel like we really made a very good choice for the district,” Denzer said. “She’s coming in with a lens of her own. She has some background, a bit different from our traditional leadership in the district … I’m just excited that she brings the quality she does.”

The unanimous board vote on her hire packed a punch in terms of acknowledging her fit for the school district at its current juncture. She said with her training and experience — and the fact that she’s never showed up to work in a bad mood — she’s ready to take the lead.

“Women that are going into superintendencies tend to be pretty strong, confident women,” Freiheit said. “I feel honored to be a part of that group of women.”

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Madeline Heim covers K-12 & higher education in Winona. A 2018 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she previously interned at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the suburban community arm of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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