Renee Foose's call to education came around the 10th grade, when she says she "fell in love" with biology class. From there, she began a circuitous route to her career, and sometimes she was literally behind the wheel.
Among the jobs Foose took to pay for her schooling: ice cream truck driver, bus driver and Maryland state trooper.
While working full time at these various jobs and meeting the demands of college, she kept her sights on the path to a career in education; she earned four degrees and steadily moved up the ranks in local school districts. And Monday, she begins her new job as superintendent of Howard County schools, becoming the first woman to head the system. She replaces Sydney Cousin, who is retiring.
Her jobs gave her frequent contact with people from all walks of life. "Being able to talk to anyone and defuse difficult situations [while a state trooper] has served me well in education," said Foose, 45, the Baltimore County deputy superintendent since 2011.
Those traits will undoubtedly come in handy as Foose takes over one of the state's highest-performing school systems but one recently fraught with controversy, particularly among school board members. She will also face concerns from parents and teachers about equity in a school system that now has a majority of minority students.
Foose worked as a state trooper in the early 1990s while attending college. Then-police Deputy Superintendent Col. James Harvey said he once intervened on Foose's behalf after her superiors would not let her have time off to gain her teaching credentials.
"Letting her off to continue her education," said Harvey, "was one of the best decisions I've made in my career with the state police."
Foose grew up in Allentown, Pa., the youngest of eight siblings, and was the first in her family to graduate from college.
"Her love for the school system starts way back when she was younger," said Foose's sister, Debra Michlovsky, who lives in Lansford, Pa. "Let me tell you: When she is out to do something, she goes full force."
Foose has been an educator for about 15 years. "A lot of folks see me as having been on a fast track. The one thing that I have had to do is work for everything that I've gotten," she said.
She said that her focus in Howard will be on building confidence in the school system.
"What I want to focus on, first and foremost, is making sure that we're continuing to provide a world-class education for each and every one of the students in Howard County," she said. "I think it's important that we continue to find ways to build stakeholder trust and confidence."
Howard school officials have lauded Foose's reputation for implementing education initiatives that help prepare students for college and the workforce. Foose's former colleagues and bosses say that she will provide the necessary leadership, drive and people skills.
"She has a very strong, analytical skill set that will serve her well," said retiring Baltimore County Superintendent Joe Hairston. "What I love about her is her ability to question in a nonintrusive, nonthreatening way. She has tremendous investigative skills and research skills."
Foose signed a four-year contract that will pay her $250,000 annually. The contract stipulates that she must live in Howard, which means she will be putting her home in neighboring Frederick County on the market this month. The school board agreed to pay her up to $25,000 for moving expenses.
Howard school officials would not say whether those expenses could include the costs for a new home. But Foose said, "I don't think it's going to cost $25,000 or even half of that."
"The expense is to move from one residence into another," she said. "There will be full transparency. I will provide the estimates and the actual expenses."
When she was hired as deputy in Baltimore County, school officials sparked controversy after refusing to release details about her $219,000 salary.
In addition to working as an administrator in Baltimore County, she taught there and has worked as an administrator in Washington and Montgomery counties.
Former Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry Weast said that early on, he recognized Foose as a "young, up-and-coming star" in the system, and she was given one of the county's most trying jobs — principal at Earle B. Wood Middle School in Rockville, which struggled with student achievement.
"She did a lot to improve teacher quality but worked right alongside the teachers while she was doing it," said Weast. "She had a fire in her belly for helping not only kids who were successful already to reach higher ground but a real interest in helping children who weren't achieving very well."
In 2007, while principal at Wood Middle, Foose was the subject of a Washington Post article about approaches to standardized testing when some teachers accused her of giving extra help on the state assessments to some students while withholding it from others, based on who was considered likely to pass.
"That was a couple of disgruntled teachers who were called out for not doing their jobs," Foose said last week. "I've always operated under the premise that if any test were given today, are we in a position to pass, because we should not be held captive to the test. I said, 'Take a look at these students right now ... who on this list, if we were to give them the test tomorrow, is going to pass? And whatever it takes you have to make sure we're prepared because all students should be able to pass this test.' And we passed, and they continue to pass."
Foose is big on presentation and Web design. She does her own presentations, which is unusual for a school superintendent. She said that while working for Weast, she learned that when it came to getting a message across, "Tell it first, tell it often, tell it the loudest."
Last month, Foose presented to the Howard community her "Superintendent's Entry Plan," a colorfully crafted, picture-filled publication with a loud-and-clear message: She wants the high-performing school system to ratchet up its efforts, to embrace such objectives as technology innovations, community engagement and transparency.
She said that during the first few weeks of the school year she will visit schools across the county and "meet with teachers, administrators and support staff to hold town meetings." She added that then she would meet with central office staff to "evaluate the opening day/week effectiveness and make needed adjustments and improvements."
"The entry plan is about transitioning the school system to a new level," said Foose. "They're a really high-achieving system but there is room for improvement there. And just making sure we're leveraging technology to maximize efficiencies."
Chaun Hightower, departing president of the Howard County Council of PTAs, said, "Her challenges are going to be to really take a real close look on a school-by-school basis at the level of equity and parity from school to school."
Hightower added that "there have been concerns raised about Oakland Mills High School, Reservoir High School, many of the high schools in Columbia not having the same resources and also not having the same level of academic performance you find in the western and other parts of the county."
Then there is the school board. It is in the midst of administrative law hearings in response to its request last year that the state board remove fellow member Allen Dyer.
The panel accused Dyer of such violations as breaching confidentiality requirements and bullying. Dyer, who has repeatedly accused the board of Open Meetings Act violations, has brought several lawsuits against the panel, and recently, against individual members.
Earlier this year amid the board's squabbles, the Howard County Education Association suggested that its members consult the Mediation and Conflict Resolution Center at Howard Community College or consider stepping down.
Paul Lemle, president of the county teachers union, said he has advised Foose "that she should surround herself with 'no' men and women, as opposed to the 'yes' men she'll get by the force of her personality and in the culture of our Board of Education."
Foose said that she regularly watches Howard County school board meetings online, and that she's viewed some of last year's meetings.
"I really want the board to be a team. And I think they want that, too," Foose said. "I would hope that we will work together as a high-functioning governance team for the benefit of all students, and although we don't have to always agree, we should have a process by which we disagree."
Howard school board member Brian Meshkin said that Foose's story alone, from working an array of jobs, sometimes at night while attending school during the day, will be an inspiration to the Howard community.
"I'm sure there have been many people who have tried to throw rocks at her during her rise," Meshkin said. "But she has had tremendous success as an educator, an administrator and executive. I think she will inspire many."
Hometown: Allentown, Pa.
Education: Bachelor's degree, Towson University, 1993; master's in education, 1997, and master's in business administration, 2010, from Loyola University Maryland; doctorate in educational leadership from University of Delaware, 2004.
Career highlights: Deputy superintendent, Baltimore County schools, 2011-2012; associate superintendent, Montgomery County schools, 2009-2011; principal, Montgomery and Washington counties, 2003-2008; teacher, Parkville High School, 1996-2000; Maryland state trooper, 1990-1996