Since the retirement of former superintendent Dr. William Hamilton on Dec. 1, Ken Gutman has taken over as the top administrator in the Walled Lake Consolidated Schools district. Since he first began his career in education as a teacher at Orchard Lake Middle School, Gutman has gained over 18 years of education experience — including eleven years with the Lake Orion Community Schools, where he became the superintendent in 2008. Now, Gutman brings both his enthusiasm for education and his philosophy of “Every Child, Every Day” to Walled Lake while preparing to tackle the current challenges facing many school districts and finishing up his doctorate in education at Wayne State University.
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SCN: You have over 18 years of collective education experience working as a teacher, middle school principal, and as a district superintendent in addition to other numerous roles. What first drew you to consider a career in education?
KG: I’ve wanted to be in education ever since I was a little kid. My father was a high school principal growing up and later on went on to central office roles. And ever since I was very young I have wanted to do that. This is the very best of professions, and I still feel like I can make a difference for every child.
SCN: Please explain what prompted you to switch from teaching to the administration aspect of education.
KG: I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t miss teaching. I mean, I think that any good administrator misses teaching every day. I just knew though that there was a point that I wanted to have the ability to impact more students. I thought I did a decent job in the classroom. But I do know the opportunity to impact more students as an assistant principal or principal, central office roles, and as the superintendent of such a large district. I think it is just a greater opportunity here.
SCN: What position have you found to be the most rewarding?
KG: Oh, I think teaching. Teaching was the most rewarding because I could see every day the impact I had on children. I knew it was a quick assessment, a quick feedback tool. You knew when you were making a difference back then. And at the same time I enjoy the superintendent role immensely. So I would say both the teaching role and the superintendent role have both been the most gratifying.
SCN: Which has been the most challenging?
KG: I would say without a doubt the superintendent role. It’s particularly difficult in this economy to make the kind of change we know we can make. All the research is out there. We have outstanding instructors. We have a great program here in Walled Lake. It’s difficult to keep those programs in place with reduced monetary flow.
SCN: You were with the Lake Orion Community Schools for 11 years and became the superintendent in 2008. Please explain why you decided to move to Walled Lake. What attracted you to Walled Lake Schools?
KG: First of all, if you’re anywhere in the state of Michigan, you’ve already heard about the excellent programs in the Walled Lake Schools. Having been here a short time it’s been totally reaffirmed. Also I have been so impressed with this staff. I grew up in this area. I live in West Bloomfield. I live about 10 minutes from my office. And the opportunity to work close to home, but also in a district that has such high priorities, a community that respects and values education and educators, and also to have the opportunity to work in such a multi-cultural environment that’s more reflective of the real world all contributed to my decision to apply for this position.
SCN: You have officially been at the helm of the district since Dr. Hamilton retired on Dec. 1. How do you feel the first couple of months have gone? Has it been a smooth transition so far? Why or why not?
KG: I think it has been a very exciting transition. I’d like to think it’s smooth. I’ve had the opportunity to visit nearly every classroom and attend almost every PTA meeting and get to meet the majority of teachers and staff members, custodians, paraprofessionals, and others within our district. I can tell you that — again this is such an incredible staff — you feel the devotion to children every day. And so from my perspective it’s been a seamless transition. I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to meet people here. The community has been very welcoming. And we also have a Board of Education that could not be more unselfish, could not give more to children, and could not listen to more of a community than I have ever seen before. They truly care.
SCN: The Board of Education found your philosophy of “Every Child, Every Day” compelling. Please explain what exactly your philosophy entails and how you plan to follow it, especially in a district with approximately 16,000 students.
KG: The reality is — and this is not a condemning statement on Walled Lake (because) I think we have this situation across the world — we need to find a way to reach every child every day, and we’re not there yet. We know learning is there, we know what we’re supposed to be doing educationally, and it’s difficult to enact but ultimately until we make a difference for every single child every day, I truly believe we need to have an IEP (individualized education program) for every child. We need to make sure we have an individual plan for each and every child to be successful that includes strengths, weaknesses, opportunities for growth. We have significant portion where there is data. Really this doesn’t have to be this difficult to create, but I want for every child what I want for my own children. I want to know where they are, and I want to know how to help them get better. So we’re not there yet. We’re not there yet in American education, I don’t think we’re there yet globally, but we will get there.
SCN: How do current Walled Lake students’ test scores compare to those in years past? How do they compare with other school districts?
KG: I think Walled Lake is among the leaders in the county and the state in terms of test scores. And we have to remember that test scores are only one indicator of how students did on a particular day or a couple of days. But I think it’s very impressive how our students have achieved. I think that we have a fully aligned curriculum and instruction model. We can always tweak it and make it a little bit better, but our students have achieved at a very, very high level and will continue to do so.
SCN: Are there any plans to help raise or maintain those scores?
KG: Absolutely. We have common core standards coming in Michigan. And we are going to make sure our instruction and our curriculum is aligned with common core standards. We are going to make sure we pay attention to every child every day. We are going to make sure we focus on successes, and we will remediate when there are issues.
SCN: Loss of revenue, state budget cuts, and declining enrollment are just a few of the challenges facing the school district. What do you feel are the biggest issues for the district? How do you plan to overcome them?
KG: Well I think you’ve just outlined the biggest issues for the district and that is our funding stream. We need to have a funding stream in public education that is predictable and that is equitable. And we don’t have either of those things right now. When we start looking at mid-year prorations, we start looking at potential huge reductions, we end up diminishing the ability to educate children. And it’s unfortunate. Every child gets one day and one year for each day and each year of education. And although that may sound like a very basic statement, the reality is we are taking away opportunities for children when we are not funding them.
SCN: As the superintendent of Walled Lake, what is the most important goal you hope to accomplish? What do you hope to bring to the district?
KG: Well, I’m fortunate to come into a district that is already highly successful, but if I can accomplish anything it’s bringing us a lot closer to that reality of an IEP for every child, bringing us closer to that reality of making sure we’ve educated every child to the best of our potential so they can achieve the best to their potential.
SCN: Any programs you plan to implement to improve a student’s overall educational experience in the district?
KG: Absolutely. We’ve begun a program, an International Baccalaureate — an IB program — and believe it can be highly successful. It will be at Western High School and Geisler Middle School. We will be implementing it over the next couple of years, and I think what we will find is we are providing an opportunity for a global studies program to help students compete in really what is a flat world, and we’re able to do that here within our district rather than sending our students outside.
SCN: You are currently working on your doctorate in education from Wayne State University, which you hope to complete this upcoming December. Has it been difficult making the transition to a new district while balancing your doctorate studies and family?
KG: I can’t imagine anything more difficult. This December would be great. That is my goal. My dissertation is on the role of the superintendent as instructional leader because I think that’s very important to me. Not a job of a politician, not a job of making sure the buses are running on time or day to day management. It’s about instructional leadership and making a difference for children. But it’s incredibly difficult to set aside the time to write when I’m fully immersed in this position. It’s a challenge, but definitely one I’m capable of achieving at some point.
SCN: How do you manage to be committed to all three?
KG: I require very little sleep, and I have a supportive family — that helps.
SCN: As a former Language Arts teacher, what book do you feel should be read by students before they graduate high school? Please explain your choice.
KG: Wow. I’m going to start with one that is just a classic work, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I think all children should read “To Kill a Mockingbird.” You get a good sense of where we’ve been as a country. It’s a compelling story. There’s a reason that it’s a classic, and when you look at the racial injustice and social injustice that has been a part of our past. There’s one I think that every child should read.