The Path of Eric Hieser from Illinois Farm Country to Sturgis (Summer 2013)

Eric Hieser Leads Sturgis Faculty and Class of 2010 to Graduation at Hyannis Harbor

By Terry Ward Libby with some additions by Eric Hieser, Executive Director
A Conversation with Eric Hieser by Terry Ward Libby was originally published in Cape Cod View, March/April 2013: p.16-17. The interview is reprinted here with permission and additions. We asked Mr. Hieser if he would be willing to tell us more about his background for the Soundings Faculty Profile. His additions to the original text are indicated in italics.

In 2004, Eric Hieser became Executive Director of Sturgis Charter Public School in Hyannis. At the time, enrollment stood at a little more than 300 students, and there was no waiting list for new arrivals. That year, the school first received its formal authorization in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP), a college prep curriculum developed in Geneva, Switzerland, during the 1960s. The program was established to provide guidelines for the education of young students living abroad. From the start, the IBDP had a global focus, which makes it especially relevant for students today, as they prepare for lives and careers in the 21st century.

Since Hieser’s arrival, enrollment at Sturgis has grown quickly. In the fall of 2013, it will admit 800 students, with nearly 600 applicants for 180 ninth-grade entry slots. In the coveted U.S. News and World Report school ratings for 2013, it was named third best charter school in America, and first in Massachusetts.

What is your background? 

Family Barn Reassembled at Illinois Mennonite
History Society in Metamora

I grew up in Illinois farm country on a farm that produced corn, soybeans, and pigs. My ancestors were Mennonites who had moved to the Midwest in the 1800’s from Germany and Switzerland where they were farmers.  The Mennonites were conservative, humble, hard-working people who focused on peace and service to others.  My ancestors first purchased the land for our farm in the mid-1800’s and built a farmstead and a barn, which hosted the national Mennonite conference in the 1860’s.  In 1989, the barn was dismantled piece by piece, and reassembled at the Illinois Mennonite History Society in Metamora, IL, some 30 miles away from my home in Minier, IL.  In the early 1900’s, my branch of the family split off from the Mennonite religion to join the Christian Church due to my grandfather’s marriage outside of the Mennonite community.  Yet, the Mennonite values of hard work, being humble and service to others permeated my community and upbringing.  My siblings and I all had chores to do on the farm, and of course the chores had to be done both before and after school.

Eric Hieser – High School Graduation Photo

My father had grown up on the same farm in the early 1900’s, walked one mile to a country schoolhouse for grades 1-8, and then took a buggy four miles to attend the high school, later driving to high school when cars became available.  My mother grew up in Pella, IA and later in Mesa, AZ.  Both of my parents were very good students, and they attended and graduated from university during the Depression even though the majority of students went into the work force after high school.  My father studied agriculture at the University of Illinois and my mother studied business education at Arizona State University.  After graduating from university and working a few years as a farm manager in Missouri, my father enlisted in the army during WWII and was sent to Africa to be a weatherman in Ethiopia.  Around the dinner table growing up, my siblings and I heard many stories about all of the places my father had seen and the things that he had done from South Africa to the Congo to Nigeria to Ethiopia.  My father returned from the war and was stationed at Thunderbird Field in Phoenix, AZ where he met my mother who was working for the army as an assistant to one of the officers at the base.  My mother became a farm wife but also served the local schools as a substitute teacher.  In addition to farming, my father served the community as a member of the church board, the county Farm Bureau Board, and several school boards as they went through consolidation and built a new high school.  Upon reflection, it was probably my father’s many stories about Africa that stimulated my strong interest in travel and living beyond the U.S.

Eric Hieser Goes 11-0  in Pole Vault

Eric Hieser Goes 11-0
in Pole Vault

I attended a very small high school in the town where we lived.  We had only 85 students in grades 9-12 and I had only 17 in my class.  I took college preparatory classes as it was always assumed in my family that my three siblings and I would go to college.  As it was such a small high school, I played sports (baseball, basketball, and track) every season, and was also in the plays, worked on the newspaper and yearbook, and was in student council.  I suppose that my involvement in all of these sports, clubs, and activities in addition to my chores at home helped me learn how to keep many balls in the air at one time, somewhat like leading an expanding, high-performing charter school.

I attended Illinois State University, became a teacher of science and physical education and then a guidance counselor there. I really value my ten years as a counselor as an excellent preparation for school leadership.  I believe the heart of leadership is effective communication and being a counselor helps one hone communication skills. I wanted to travel internationally, so my wife and I went to Norway, where we taught at an American school, which included not only American students, but students from many countries. Later, we lived and taught in Japan for 12 years. Our daughter was born there. From there, we moved to Zurich, where I worked as an administrator and coach. After that, we taught in Brazil. When our daughter moved to Boston after college, we followed. We decided it was a good time to return home.

Why the focus on international travel and teaching?

Anne, Jessica and Eric Hieser in Japan

Anne, Jessica and Eric Hieser in Japan
October 1980

Why not? I have always been fascinated with learning about other cultures. I think cross-cultural sensitivity is important. It helps you to be open to the views and ideas of others.

Working at some of the highly respected American and international schools around the world has helped me gain a perspective on and a respect for the views of others as being very powerful in problem solving.  I have come to firmly believe that including diverse perspectives enables the whole to become greater than the sum of the parts.  Living in other cultures helps one think outside the box and consider options and possibilities that may be beyond one’s own original consciousness.

American School in Japan, Tokyo, Japan, (1978-90)

Zurich International School, Zurich, Switzerland (1990-98)

Escola Graduada (the American School of Sao Paulo), Sao Paulo, Brazil, (1998-2002)

Reprinted from “The Global Footprint of Sturgis Faculty” Sturgis Soundings Magazine (Fall 2011)

What is a “charter public” school? Who gets to attend?

Sturgis is a charter school, separate from the local school district, while it is public in that student tuition comes from the state. Admission to the school is non-selective, meaning it is determined entirely on the basis of a yearly lottery.

IB World SchoolWhat is emphasized in the International Baccalaureate Programme?

It offers a broad preparation in liberal arts and sciences. It’s focused on habits of mind and strategies for thinking critically, not on memorization of lists of facts. An important course at our school is called “The Theory of Knowledge,” where students learn to question the premises behind statements, beliefs and arguments. They explore issues of philosophy, ethics, perception, emotion. They become thoughtful consumers of information. We apply what we call an O, P, V, L approach to evaluating any piece of information, or for evaluating anything, really. First you look at the origin, the source. Then you ask, what is the purpose behind this? What is the source trying to achieve? What is the value of this, and what are its limitations?

Does the faculty at Sturgis School have special training? How are students evaluated?

Our teachers have degrees in the subjects they teach, and they all attend International Baccalaureate training.* Many have experience teaching abroad in IBP schools. They work collaboratively, working together to see that students get the individual attention they need. There is a lot of mutual respect between students and teachers here. Virtually all assessment is done by essay writing and problem-solving. There is very little multiple choice, no ‘gotcha’ questions. We’re interested in finding out what our students know, not what they don’t know.

* For more information on IB Training, see Faculty Attend IB Training Workshops

Sports are so integral to the high school experience. Does Sturgis have traditional sports programs?

We have 23 athletic teams that play in a league with schools of similar size. There’s soccer, cross-country, tennis, baseball. We play to win, and we hold our own, but we also play for the deeper values to be learned, like sportsmanship, teamwork, perseverance and camaraderie.

What do you hear from Sturgis School alumni? Where are they now?

I often hear, “it was hard, but it was worth it.” Many former students tell me that their first two years of college were easier than their last two at Sturgis. Five former Sturgis students are now teachers at the school. Our grads hold all kinds of positions. Some are artists, one is a composer in Hollywood, another does cancer research at a joint MIT-Harvard program, another manages the Boston Bruins Foundation. Some go into the Coast Guard or other branches of the military.

Eric Hieser Addresses Class of 2014
on Opening Day at New West Campus

Given the demand and long list of applicants, what does the future look like for Sturgis?

We have expanded to two locations. Our East Campus is comprised of five separate building locations in downtown Hyannis, and we have a newly built school, our West Campus, located next to the Cape Cod Melody Tent. I’m not sure what the future looks like, though we are always trying to determine how to serve the community in the best way we can. I’ll continue to do what I’ve attempted to do all along—I try to hire great people, then stay out of their way. I like to say that buildings don’t make schools, people make schools.

You are recognized for your collaborative approach to educational leadership. Are there particular books that helped guide you?

For those interested in leadership, the cutting edge of education reform, and developing vibrant school cultures, I recommend the following books for providing me with many of the guiding principles for what we do at Sturgis:

  • Leadership from the Inside Out by Kevin Cashman
  • The Human Side of School Change by  Robert Evans
  • Good to Great by Jim Collins
  • The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change by Seymour Sarason
  • The Fourth Way: the Inspiring Future for Educational Change by Andrew Hargreaves
  • Shaping School Culture: Pitfalls, Paradoxes, and Promises by Terrence Deal & Kent D. Peterson
  • Working with Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman

(Reprinted from “All Time Favorite Books” Sturgis Soundings (Winter 2010)


%d bloggers like this: