Theresa Battle’s childhood is marked by the influence of female leaders.
She attended an all-girls public high school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and her kindergarten class was taught by a black woman. In elementary and high school, her principals were women. At home, she looked up to her great-grandmother, who was born in 1882 and lived to be 102.
This month, Battle became the first African-American woman to serve as superintendent of the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage District.
“I really think I’m fulfilling my life’s purpose, and that is to help children and teenagers’ dreams and hopes become reality,” she said in a recent interview.
Battle brings 37 years of experience in urban and suburban districts as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, assistant director of curriculum and assistant superintendent.
Nationally, women are 70% of educators but only 30% of superintendents, Battle said. In Minnesota, only 16% of superintendents are women.
“I recognize I’m a pioneer, and with that comes a responsibility,” she said.
‘A great listener’
Most recently Battle was an assistant superintendent in the St. Paul Public Schools district, where she spent over 28 years across two tenures.
Battle said Burnsville-Eagan-Savage’s values, diversity, dedicated staff and supportive relationships with the local government and businesses drew her to the position.
“I’m thrilled to be here,” she said.
She named budgets and ensuring equal opportunity and outcomes for all students as some of the district’s biggest challenges, referring to millions of dollars in budget cuts in recent years and concerns about racism and the student achievement gap.
This spring, a group of Burnsville High School students participated in an equity innovation lab where students expressed their desire for a culturally competent city and school, Battle said.
“That was about respect, seeing the individual student and seeing them as their authentic selves,” she said. “Those are the challenges, to make sure everyone feels welcome and respected and seen and valued in our community.”
Dana Abrams, a longtime friend and former colleague, said Battle is up for the job.
“She’s a great listener,” she said. “She listens, she’s humble, she knows what the best practice is and always, always, always keeps the success of students as her desired outcome.”
Abrams and Battle met in the teacher’s lounge at Central High School 25 years ago. Battle was working with special education students, and Abrams worked with teen moms. Their education careers continued to intersect over the next two decades.
“You’re never going to see her as an authoritarian,” Abrams said. “It’s about team. She surrounds herself with people who know what she doesn’t.”
Battle’s approachable manner and willingness to help made an impression on students, too, Abrams said.
Recently, Abrams and Battle attended a walk-out at a St. Paul school where students took a stand against racism.
Abrams said many students congratulated Battle on her new role, and she remembers a few female African American students saying, “’I know somebody who is going to a superintendent who looks like me.’”
“Even though she’s not going to be in St. Paul anymore, she’s going to have people here who look up to her,” Abrams said.
Battle, who loves to cook, remembers her great-grandmother prepared a Sunday dinner every week for her family. After high school, Battle said she knew she wanted to work with children and teenagers.
She attended Hampton University, where she studied special education with an emphasis on emotional behaviors, and later the University of Minnesota, from where she holds a master of arts degree and an educational doctorate.
Battle is a first-generation college graduate. Her father left school after fourth grade to help his family sharecrop in Virginia, and her mother completed high school.
But Battle said she and her five older brothers were always surrounded by educational opportunity and good conversation.
Books, encyclopedia sets, Reader’s Digest and Ebony and Jet magazines filled the home, she said, and her father always read two newspapers every day.
Battle spent summers horseback-riding, swimming, practicing archery and hiking at camp in the Catskill Mountains.
“A wonderful childhood,” she said.
Battle married her college sweetheart, and as a Minnesota resident for now nearly 36 years, she jokes that love brought her to Minnesota.
Her son is currently a chef, and her daughter is studying strategic communications at New York University.
Outside of education, Battle said she loves to read and go to the beach. Abrams said Battle is also a sports fanatic, and she has been spotted wearing a Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings bracelet at the same time.
Hope for the future
Before long, around 8,300 students and 1,300 staff members will be arriving for a new school year.
“I like standardization, but not at the expensive of stifling innovation and creativity,” Battle said. “That’s where I have to find a balance.”
In recent years, district officials have cut millions from the budget in efforts to offset declining student enrollment and a lack of state and federal funding.
Battle said the “three h’s” — “the heat” of being held accountable, “the hope” the district will do better and “the help” it needs to help students succeed — guide her as she prepares to move through difficult decisions, such as the possibility of closing one or more schools to help balance to the budget.
A district consultant this month recommended closing two elementary schools and one middle school and selling the Diamondhead Education Center at the end of next school year.
Board of Education Chairwoman Abigail Alt said she’s been impressed with Battle’s focus on getting to know the schools and community.
“She’s definitely digging in and wanting to make sure that she understands who we are at this point in time and leads us in a way that ensures we continue to be a viable school district with high-quality programming,” Alt said.
She said Battle’s leadership also brings opportunity for district officials and staffers to look for new ways to approach their work.
“For me, (success) is that the children are better off when I leave this position than when I came,” Battle said.