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Administrator Profile

In a Diverse District, a College Culture Is Born

Maria Ott led Rowlands Unified School District through a major transformation to improve teaching and learning, supported by the Ball Foundation.
Maria G. Ott on May 15, 2011, the opening day of Rowland's Blandford Elementary School.
Maria G. Ott on May 15, 2011, the opening day of Rowland's Blandford Elementary School.

Known for its cultural diversity, Rowland Unified School District (RUSD) in Rowland Heights, Calif., takes the “unified” in its name very seriously, says Superintendent Maria G. Ott—so seriously that the district’s mission statement calls Rowland’s “progressive international community” one that is “united in learning.”

“The high school is a little United Nations,” says Ott, adding if outsiders observed it for a day, they’d be impressed by how its Latino, Filipino, Asian, African-American and white students are integrated not only in their classes but in their friendships, sports and club activities. “Students have no way of not working together,” she says. “We believe there is a strength in our students—that they come to a setting where they are learning side-by-side with different students with different backgrounds. There is great respect drawn from the cultural diversity.”

Respect may be a given in RUSD, but students’ attending college hasn’t always been. Ott says that kids facing socio-economic challenges at home haven’t always heard the message that college is the natural culmination of their education.

Fueled by her own multicultural background, Ott has achieved statewide distinction as an educator dedicated to increasing literacy and achievement. RUSD is still reaping the benefits from a three-year literacy-focused partnership with the Ball Foundation and from a school/university partnership program. Both are changing the college-going culture.

Ball Keeps RUSD Moving

When Ott arrived in RUSD as only its fourth superintendent, the district’s strong tradition of professional development and its history of fiscal stability meant that not much needed fixing. However, Ott says the district needed to “be exposed to broader thinking” about how to improve both literacy learning and literacy teaching.

During the 2005-2006 school year, RUSD applied to partner with the Ball Foundation for resources to create a new strategic plan. Approved for the years 2008-2011, the RUSD-Ball Literacy Partnership helped RUSD create a plan to improve instructional, organizational and leadership practices for RUSD teachers to better teach literacy. By the 2009-2010 year, RUSD had created communities of practice—groups of teachers, administrators and coaches who meet regularly to discuss how best to teach literacy based on their own daily exposures to students.This year, RUSD adopted a framework for efficacious teaching to examine the best practices to ensure that teachers are teaching effectively. The hard work is paying off: In 2011, two K8 schools were certified as International Baccalaureate schools, reflecting what RUSD administrators want students to be: problem solvers.

While RUSD teachers have learned to teach differently, students have learned to think differently, especially about going to college. Miriam Kim, principal at Hollingsworth Elementary, led the way after learning about No Excuses University (NEU), where elementary and intermediate schools are adopted by a U.S. college or university. Through speakers, field trips and team spirit, the college or university helps kids as young as age 6 learn what they need to do to attend college.Ott embraced Kim’s vision, and NEU launched at Hollingsworth in 2009-2010.

Personal Change Agent

Throughout her 20 years as a classroom teacher and administrator in Los Angeles Unified School District; currently at RUSD; and as co-author of A Culturally Proficient Society Begins in School where she addresses how her life’s circumstances shaped her as an educator, Ott says that part of the passion she has for what she does comes directly from her experiences. “I feel for many of RUSD’s students,” she says. “They are like me. For many, they are the first ones to go to college.”

Maria G. Ott

  • Superintendent, Rowland Unified School District
  • Age: 64
  • Tenure: 7 years
  • Salary: $221,490
  • Staff: 2,161
  • Schools: 117
  • Students: 14,977
  • Per-pupil expenditure: $8,706
  • Web site:


Jennifer Elise Chase is a contributing writer to District Administration.