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How This NKU Alumna Went from Nursing School to Middletown’s First Woman Superintendent

When you sit down with Deborah Houser, you are instantly put in a good mood. The cheerful, intelligent woman greets you with a warm smile and a folksy, Kentucky-like “how ya’ doing” almost immediately as you connect with her. 

It doesn’t matter who you are, either. Whether a sixth-grade student at Highview School in Middletown or an NKU Magazine contributor waiting to meet Houser at Java Johnny’s coffee shop—a Middletown, Ohio staple—Houser greets you the same way. 

That’s a characteristic most like about Houser, who is a two-time NKU graduate and the current superintendent of Middletown City Schools. When Houser was appointed to the post earlier this year, she became the first female superintendent in the district’s long, storied history. 

When she thinks about that distinction, she doesn’t think about herself. She thinks about all the little girls who look up to her. 

“For years, they’ve seen that the majority of their teachers are female. A lot of principals are females. Now, they can see the superintendent, and it’s something they can do,” Houser said. “That’s a big responsibility.” 

While she rose through the ranks to become the head of a school district in an urban part of Butler County, Deb’s story traces back to her rural roots in Edgewood, Kentucky. 

“I had that childhood that everyone talks about now that said, ‘When we grew up, we went outside when the sun came up, and we didn’t come in until it was dark or when your mom called you in for dinner.’ That was really my childhood,” Houser said.

Responsibility was instilled in her early on, as she was the oldest of five children. Like many parts of northern Kentucky, Edgewood wasn’t as developed as it is today, so Houser spent much of her time outdoors. 

“In our neighborhood, across the street was all of this undeveloped land, so it was miles of woods,” Houser said. “So playing in the woods every day, riding bikes, playing kickball, eating popsicles, drinking from the hose. That was me. You hear people talk about that now. We drank from the hose, and we’re OK!”

""For years, they’ve seen that the majority of their teachers are female. A lot of principals are females. Now, they can see the superintendent, and it’s something they can do. That’s a big responsibility.”

After graduating from high school, she went on to Northern Kentucky University as a nursing major. Like many students then and now, the primary reason for attending NKU was convenience. The university was local to her Edgewood home, Houser pointed out. It’s what was familiar to her, so she knew it would be easy to enroll. But also by staying at home, it allowed her to work while in school and help pay her tuition. When it came to her studies, however, that ended up being pretty foreign. Originally enrolled as a nursing major, that quickly changed with one of her elective classes. 

“I started in nursing at NKU and did that for a year,” Houser explains. “I think it was really, when I think back to some of the educators I had, especially one of them, one of my eighth-grade teachers—thinking about what he did and the impact he made—that’s really what made me consider going into education. Then, I took as one of my electives at NKU, one of those ‘Intro to Education’ classes. I thought, ‘I think I might want to try this!’” 

Tried it, she did. She graduated from NKU with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and got her first job as a sixth-grade teacher at St. Pius X in Edgewood. From there, Houser went to Kenton County Schools and taught fourth grade, fifth grade, and eventually kindergarten, the age group she taught the longest.

Houser was hired in Middletown, Ohio, a city in Butler County approximately 50 minutes north of NKU’s campus, in 2008. She was hired as the curriculum coordinator to oversee the different curriculae in Middletown schools while also moving the district from paper and pencil testing over to all online testing. This was considered innovative at the time. 

From curriculum director, she was promoted to senior director of human resources before being named assistant superintendent in August 2021. She had her hands on many initiatives during that time as assistant superintendent, most notably designing, developing and implementing the Passport to Tomorrow program. 

With the shifting trends in technology and employment, Houser says it’s important now more than ever that students realize their skills and how those skills translate into a career. Passport to Tomorrow helps with that development. 

“There are many different pieces to the Passport to Tomorrow, but the biggest piece is preparing children when they graduate to understand the set of skills they have so they understand how to move between different career opportunities,” Houser explains.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an adult aged 25 through 34 will stay at a job an average of 2.8 years. It’s important, says Houser, to light the fire in students to find passions that will ignite a career in the workforce post-graduation. But it’ll also be just as critical to teach universal skills that can help in any career. 

“Our sixth graders now, when they graduate, it’ll be the world of robotics,” Houser continues. “With the introduction of AI, we don’t know what the workforce will look like. You really don’t. Different positions will disappear, different positions will surface. But what won’t go away is the need for confidence, time management and how to work with a team, so we’re focusing on those skills.” 

It’s that Passport to Tomorrow that she wants to see continue to grow and implement during her time as superintendent, the post she officially began in March. There wasn’t much discussion as to who would be the next superintendent when Marlon Styles, Jr. stepped down, according to Middletown School Board President Dr. Chris Urso.

“She is well-respected in our district and in our community. She has been very successful,” Dr. Urso said. “HR is a difficult position. She filled that role for quite a long time, where you have to deliver the bad news sometimes to folks. She is very good at communicating whatever the information is in a way that is ethical, approachable, honest, that allows that kind of difficult conversation to proceed in a way that isn’t destructive or interferes with progress. She’s also someone who has good energy, is very positive and builds people up as opposed to breaking them down.”

Urso says Houser is a builder, something that is crucial in progressing and transforming education in an ever-evolving world. 

“To build is to create something. The ideas are there, but they are theoretical. They are words in space. She’s good at taking those words in space and implementing things within our district that are gonna see them yield the result that the idea was meant to do.” 

Reflecting on her days as a student at NKU, Houser says it wasn’t her education classes that had the biggest impact on her. They were the “other” classes that she remembers most. Houser said those electives, as well as the student experience as a whole, made her a more well-rounded person. 

“I remembered my literature and film class. I remembered I took an English class with a professor, and we wrote a play. I remembered my zoology class,” House said. “I also played intramural volleyball. Just the social life around NKU. Also, back then, if you were lucky, your classes were back to back. But that typically was not the case. So you’d have a class then you’d have a couple hours. So, in those couple hours, just being able to take advantage of the library, the couches and TVs in the student center. It was the whole experience that rounded me out as a person.”

And when it comes to advice for those little girls who will look up to her, Houser has a simple message. 

“As a female, with social media today, they are constantly fed that they’re not enough. They are enough, and they need to know and find some way to tune out that noise and know that they are enough to do whatever they want to do.”

About This Article

September 2023

Written by
Clayton Castle ('15)
Contributor. NKU Magazine