Heather Mueller

Heather Mueller, who started her career as a Mankato social studies teacher, is the new commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education.

A tumultuous year has made Heather Mueller more optimistic about the future of education in Minnesota.

Educators proved they can adapt quickly when faced with a pandemic, the state’s new education commissioner says. More adaptation is needed this summer, Mueller says, to catch students up on missed opportunities.

The Mankato resident seeks to keep the momentum going longer-term toward improving the education system and solving longstanding challenges including closing achievement gaps.

“I am probably more hopeful now than I ever was before because we can create these big systemic changes, close our gaps and end disparities for each and every child in Minnesota.”

Mueller became the state’s top education official Thursday. She replaced Mary Cathryn Ricker, who announced last month she is leaving to return to the classroom.

Mueller spent more than 20 years in Mankato Area Public Schools before moving on to the Department of Education as an assistant commissioner in 2019.

She started her career teaching social studies at West High School, with now Gov. Tim Walz in a neighboring classroom. For her last seven years with the district, she was the director of teaching and learning.

”Dr. Mueller had a profound impact on student achievement in the Mankato Area Public Schools,” said former colleague Tom Sager, the district’s director of business services. “There is no doubt she will bring these same skills and attributes to her new role as commissioner of education so that all students throughout Minnesota will benefit from her leadership.”

Mueller spent the last year leading the education department’s pandemic response — a role she says has left her feeling well-prepared to step up to the top job.

“I’ve been able to do this work for the past year and build partnerships and relationships with educators across the state,” she said. “So when the governor asked, it was an absolute ‘yes.’”

Former colleague Scott Hare, director of student support services for Mankato Area Public Schools, said Mueller is a collaborator.

”One of Heather’s biggest strengths that will carry over to the Minnesota Department of Education is her ability to connect departments and not work in silos,” Hare said. “Heather values collaboration and seeks to bring people together to make things happen for all students.”\

Mueller is a mother of two Mankato high school students and wife of a math teacher. She said she understands firsthand the challenges the pandemic created for educators, students and families.

She said the closures of school buildings made it more apparent the vital role schools play in communities, not just for academics, but for providing children with meals, mental health support and social development.

“I have had the opportunity to see the highs and the lows of this pandemic in real time and in real life, and I know that it is not easy,” Mueller said. “And I am deeply grateful for the commitment that our educators and our communities have invested in helping ensure our students continue to get the very best in a situation no one had ever imagined we would ever encounter.”

The first priority on the new commissioner’s agenda is funding and developing enhanced summer learning and enrichment programs aimed at redressing pandemic learning losses.

“We can expand opportunities for our students to catch up, to reinforce and perhaps also learn something for the very first time in robust summer programming to ensure our students have access,” Mueller said.

The House has passed a bill providing up to $105 million for summer program grants as well as one-time aid to districts that have lost funding due to declining enrollment.

The bill would fund grants for summer preschool, tutoring, college classes for new high school graduates, mental health support and field trips. The grants would go to schools as well as some other youth service providers.

The bill is still awaiting a committee hearing in the Senate. The proposal has drawn push-back from some Republicans concerned the funds would be distributed more to urban districts than rural schools.

There might still be masks and some other extra precautions in place come next fall, but Mueller said she’s optimistic students will be back to full in-person learning and extracurricular activities.

“We are hopeful that our students can return to a more typical-looking school year,” she said.

The pandemic has exacerbated the persistent achievement gap between students who are white and students of color, Mueller said, and educators alone cannot close the gap. Partnerships beyond school walls are needed, Mueller said, to address all barriers to student success.

“We have to recognize that the achievement gap actually is more than an achievement gap,” she said. “It is also a gap in opportunity. It’s a gap in access. It’s a gap in economics. It’s a gap in hope.”

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