Listening to students and understanding their perspectives on their education has long been important to Nellie Meyer, the new superintendent of the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District.
For her doctoral dissertation on high school dropout prevention, Meyer interviewed students about the reasons why they left. Throughout her career in education, Meyer said that embracing “student voice” has become a guiding purpose.
“That has been my passion, that is what my dissertation was on,” Meyer said, “Student voice – what students need and how we can do a better job. I think without that you really can’t be everything that you need to be.”
Since starting her new job July 1, Meyer said she immediately noticed how administrators and teachers in the district keep students in mind as they make decisions.
“Students are respected in such a way that they live up to that high bar,” Meyer said.
She pointed to the district’s “open campus” policy as an example. Students are allowed to leave campus during lunch and free periods, rather than being required to stay on-site.
Meyer comes to MVLA from the Mount Diablo Unified School District in Contra Costa County, where she was superintendent for six years. She replaces Jeff Harding, who retired at the end of the last school year after four years leading the district.
The school board unanimously approved Meyer’s hiring in April. She is the first woman to helm the district.
The path to MVLA
Meyer comes from a family of educators. Her father was an elementary school principal, her mother was an elementary school teacher and her husband is a retired high school teacher.
However, when she graduated from college, Meyer wasn’t immediately interested in a career in education. Instead, she entered the mental health field, working in a 24-hour psychiatric facility for children and teenagers.
It was there she realized the importance of supporting young people and helping them get on a path to success early.
“That really opened my eyes to the needs of young people,” Meyer said.
From there, she spent 13 years teaching middle school and high school in the San Diego Unified School District. She primarily taught English and history, but at times also led algebra and psychology classes.
She eventually became a middle school vice principal and began working her way up in the district’s administration, including serving as a high school principal. Ultimately she became the deputy superintendent in charge of overseeing all the schools in the district.
It was from that role that she made the leap to becoming superintendent of the Mount Diablo district.
After serving as superintendent at Mount Diablo for six years, Meyer said she was drawn to the MVLA post in part because she’s always been interested in leading a high school district.
Her reservation about the job was actually that things seemed to be running too smoothly in the district.
“My first question was, well it seems like everything’s going so well, what can I do to help?” Meyer said. “That was my concern.”
However, one of her mentors told her that in any district, no matter how high performing, there are students who need support and whom she can help.
In particular, Meyer said she is interested in working to address the growing mental health challenges students are facing. As the mother of a recent high school graduate, Meyer said she has seen how the problem has grown over time.
“It is harder than it was when I was in school and there are a lot of internal and external pressures,” Meyer said.
Since starting in her new role last month, she said that a day rarely goes by where these issues aren’t discussed. Figuring out how to balance academic excellence and student wellness is a “critical conversation,” Meyer said.
She also said it is important to ensure equity, regardless of a student’s ethnicity or socioeconomic background. Part of that is allowing students open access to enroll in Advanced Placement classes, which is a policy the district has long had.
“I really think it makes the whole AP class stronger,” Meyer said. “It brings different viewpoints and perspectives and builds empathy to be with people who are different than you are.”
Meyer said it is also important for staff to be aware of struggles students may be going through and provide them support and encouragement to succeed.
As the beginning of the school year approaches, Meyer said she looks forward to spending time on campus and meeting more teachers and students.
“Once school starts I can’t wait to go into classrooms,” Meyer said. “What I’ve found is that teachers have been very welcoming, and the schools have been very welcoming.”