Laura Fuller is set to retire following nine years as USM’s head of school.
When Laura Fuller arrived at University School of Milwaukee in 2011, she was given the charge to build upon a very good school and make it an even better one. Hired as the school’s first female head, she was seen as a strong leader, excellent collaborator, and wonderful listener—qualities that have been valuable assets for her during her nearly nine years leading the school.
As she counts down the final months ahead of her retirement in June, she has earned a deep sense of satisfaction and peace as she has progressed in a career that evolved from science teacher to department chair to division head and, ultimately 13 combined years as a head at two schools, including USM. Her husband, Tom, who has served as the school’s director of transportation since 2012, will be joining her in retirement, and the couple plan to split their time with their extended families in both Wisconsin and Florida in the years ahead.
USM has experienced transformational success in many areas during her tenure, with some of the highlights featured in this story. Her collaboration with so many in the USM community has led to some remarkable achievements, and what follows is just a brief snapshot of some of the many accomplishments for which she will be remembered.
Mission and Strategic Planning
Upholding the mission of the school while advancing it through collaborative strategic planning is one of a school head’s most important roles. USM has been held in high regard for decades, and the head of school’s responsibility as caretaker of that reputation is not taken lightly. Fuller has embraced that charge, showing great care and respect for the school’s history while finding innovative ways to move USM forward and continue to meet the needs of a new generation of students.
At the forefront of these efforts was the creation of an innovative strategic plan in 2013 that addressed the school’s excellent academic experience while embedding a culture of leadership for faculty and students. This plan—created in collaboration with the Board of Trustees, and deliberately designed to conclude in 2020—more formally introduced the concepts of global education and engagement, professional leadership, and innovation.
It also focused on the importance of providing students with experiential learning components to ensure vital hands-on experiences necessary for a true and demonstrated understanding of concepts, skills, and ideas. In addition to this work, Fuller oversaw the school’s most recent reaccreditation process. USM’s accrediting body, the Independent Schools Association of the Central States (ISACS), conducts its required review process every seven years. As part of the process that led to USM’s reaccreditation in 2014, Fuller—along with trustees and her administrative team—reviewed and made modifications to the school’s mission statement to ensure it was appropriately fine-tuned to address the needs of 21st-century student learning. As she gets set to hand the reins of the school off to Steve Hancock, Fuller is also overseeing USM’s self-study year ahead of its anticipated reaccreditation in 2021.
USM has a long and proud history as a strong community. Each school head has added their own unique touches in his or her tenure to add to that reputation. Fuller cares deeply about what happens in the classroom and where students matriculate, but she also cares just as much, if not more, about the USM community and the students’ lives outside of the classroom.
One of the first things Fuller did upon her arrival was to enhance and add to the opportunities for students of all ages to interact and share in the collective school experience. New and enhanced events such as the opening day ceremony, all-school homecoming pep rally, masquerade march, and senior send-off event—among others—added a refreshing new dynamic to the student body, energizing school spirit and encouraging comradery among students of all ages. During the 2014–15 school year, Fuller led the year-long, community-wide celebration of “50 Years of USM” to commemorate the school’s opening in 1964. Over the years, her support has led to many student projects and community-building activities in which the school’s youngest and oldest students have opportunities to get to know and learn from each other.
Fuller also worked hard to ensure that families are intimately involved in their children’s educational experiences. In 2013, she unveiled USM’s parent-school partnership document, which includes USM’s expectations of parents as well as expectations parents should have of the school. It focused on areas such as philosophy, respect, the right to privacy, financial responsibilities, and expectations around communications and participation in the school community. In creating this document, Fuller made an ongoing commitment to ensure the most positive experience for every student and to strengthen the bond between the school, students, and their families.
USM is probably best known for its strong academic programs and student preparation for some of the best colleges and universities in the country. Fuller has taken great pride in the achievement of the school’s students and graduates, thanks in large part to the passionate and committed faculty—more than half of whom were hired by Fuller—who are not only experts in their individual fields but also possess a hunger for learning and continued improvement. In addition, she has hired or promoted more than three-quarters of the current administrative leadership team, all of whom collaborate with each other and the faculty to keep USM at the top of its game.
One of the most significant results of the school’s 2013 strategic plan was the development of capstones for each of the three divisions. Tower Project, as these capstone experiences are known, feature student-centered, teacher-mentored, and school-supported experiential learning that encourages students to pursue personal interests while enhancing critical skills. As another example, USM now also offers four unique and distinctive transcript designations—in global studies, independent science research, innovation, and social issues and service—two of which were introduced during Fuller’s tenure and continue to distinguish USM graduates in the college admission process.
Overall, the curriculum has continued to evolve for the benefit of the students as the school remains committed to blending traditional academics with innovative pedagogies. The success of these changes is seen in the highest test scores in the state, unmatched Advanced Placement results in the Upper School, countless student awards and distinctions, and, of course, the college acceptance and matriculation lists for each graduating class. It is also found in USM’s portrait of a graduate statement, created during Fuller’s tenure, which recognizes the school’s commitment to developing learners, fostering leaders, and preparing citizens.
Arts and Athletics
While USM has always had strong fine arts programs, Fuller has been committed to helping elevate the programs to another level, especially when it comes to recognition and awareness. She worked with fine arts faculty to develop the annual Arts Live event, which began in 2014 and brought together the visual and performing arts as an all-day showcase of USM student works and talent to members of the community. In addition, Fuller collaborated with fine arts faculty to design and create the best new and enhanced arts facilities possible as part of the Our Common Bond fundraising campaign. This work led to the creation of the Abert Tooman Center for the Arts, Werner Family Art Gallery, Sardas-Trevorrow Family Band Room, Stratton Family Orchestra Room, and Hammes Family Theatre Lobby, and other new spaces, in addition to significant enhancements to the Virginia Henes Young Theatre.
USM’s athletic program also has a rich tradition of excellence while offering a no-cut athletic policy to ensure students are able to participate fully in the many sports offered. The Wildcats have won 26 individual and team state championships since Fuller’s first year at the school in 2011. Fuller has also made a strong commitment to the Middle School athletic program and the youth sports programs offered by the school, including Milwaukee Winter Club hockey and LaxCats lacrosse. Soon after her arrival, her commitment to create the Pennington Athletic Complex allowed the school to host WIAA playoff competitions—bringing increased awareness and visibility to the school and its programs. The addition of turf playing fields for Ken Laird Field and Liz Krieg Field, enhancements to Alfred James Stadium and Polly and Henry Uihlien Sr. Ice Arena, and development of Don Forti Stadium have also paid significant dividends for USM’s student athletes.
Diversity and Inclusion
USM believes that a diverse and inclusive community—among students, families, and the faculty and staff—is a necessity in developing learners, fostering leaders, and preparing citizens, and Fuller is a big proponent of that belief. Her view has been that, for graduates to be best-prepared for the opportunities of a diverse world ahead of them, the school must provide a recognition of, and respect for, diverse backgrounds and experiences. While this is understood as a shared responsibility of all the adults in the school community, it is Fuller’s role as head of school that has been best-positioned to drive those efforts.
The push for cultural competency in the entire PK–12 curriculum has been an important one led by Fuller. While racial and ethnic diversity plays a key role in this work, Fuller has also championed the recognition of other forms of diversity, including socioeconomic status, religion, and sexual orientation. This is critically important to maintaining a learning community where students learn to think broadly, critically, and independently, and where the uniqueness of every individual is celebrated.
The creation of inclusive assemblages such as the SEEK (Speak, Engage, Empower, Know) Diversity committee and PI (pluralism and inclusion) group during Fuller’s tenure have expanded the breadth and depth of conversations around diversity and inclusion—to the benefit of everyone in the USM community. In addition, the recent creation of a new director of student success position (see page 7 for more) was intended to ensure that all students—especially those new to USM—receive appropriate support and guidance throughout their educational journeys. All of these efforts have been driven by Fuller’s belief that the school has a critical responsibility to create a vibrant culture that is reflective of the world students will help to shape upon graduation and beyond.
A Culture of Generosity
Outcomes such as those mentioned previously are only possible thanks to the support of our school’s generous donor community. Since Fuller’s arrival in 2011, USM has made remarkable strides in its fundraising efforts, receiving more than $42 million in gifts. With the school having completed a significant fundraising campaign just a few years prior to her arrival, Fuller began her tenure with several important affinity fundraising projects, including the creation of several new full-tuition endowed and annual scholarships to help support students with significant financial need and several significant athletic facility enhancements.
Fuller also gave the USM Fund significant attention, ensuring that this annual giving effort was positioned as the school’s top fundraising priority. Overall, the USM community has given more than $10 million through the USM Fund since 2011, and these annual gifts have helped fund the gap between tuition revenue and the total cost of what the school spends to educate its students. In 2012, Fuller also formalized a more tangible specialized program with the USM Fund for the parents of each year’s graduating seniors to support an opportunity themed around a specific enhancement to the school special to that class. These senior giving opportunities have led to an increase in both number of donors and funds raised.
As she concludes her career, Fuller has overseen the successful completion of the school’s largest single fundraising campaign in its history, Our Common Bond, which led to the creation of the Lee Community Room, Lubar Center for Innovation and Exploration, Jack Olson ’67 Commons, Werner Family Art Gallery, and Abert Tooman Center for the Arts. In addition to these capital projects, this comprehensive campaign raised funds to grow the endowment and also included the USM Fund. It just recently surpassed its $27 million working goal with several months remaining until its conclusion and Fuller’s retirement.
Farewell to Mrs. Fuller
In the weeks ahead, information about our plans to celebrate Laura Fuller’s retirement will be shared on the USM website and through various communications to the entire school community. Be sure to watch for details. We also invite you to share a memory, story, or well-wishes with Mrs. Fuller online at www.usmk12.org/fuller.