Dr. Gerald D. Hill, 60, was recently named the new superintendent for the West Bloomfield School District. He was one of four finalists interviewed and will take over for current superintendent Dr. JoAnn Andrees after she retires from her post at the end of the current school year on June 30. In addition to serving the last eight years as superintendent in the Glenview School District in Illinois, Dr. Hill previously served as superintendent in the Tinley Park School District in Illinois for eight years. He also was previously the executive director of elementary education in Garland, Texas and assistant superintendent for instruction in Rockwood, Mo. Dr. Hill has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Minnesota and a doctorate degree from the University of North Texas. Married to his wife, Cynthia, since college, with a son and grand-daughter, Dr. Hill took time to speak to the Spinal Column Newsweekly from Glenview, where he talked about his passion for education, what his first impressions of West Bloomfield are and what he plans to bring to the table as superintendent.
First of all, congratulations on being named the new superintendent of the West Bloomfield School District. How did you hear about the opening and what drew you to it?
GH: I heard about the opening through colleagues that knew I was looking for opportunities outside of the state of Illinois. And specifically, I learned most about it through Ray and Associates, who was the search firm that was working with the Board of Education in West Bloomfield on the superintendent search.
What drew me to the district in talking to friends and colleagues from the Michigan area — there are a lot of people in this area (of Illinois) from Michigan — is the quality of the community, the quality of life in the community, the high support for public education; a lot of the same demographic features that I’ve experienced for the last eight years in Glenview, Illinois. And so it seemed like, on paper anyway, it would be a real good match between my experience, skills and dispositions and what the Board of Education was looking for in their next superintendent.
You recently were able to introduce yourself to staff, students and residents and also toured the district’s buildings. What are your first impressions of West Bloomfield so far?
GH: (My first impressions are) very positive. My wife, Cynthia, and I enjoyed our time in West Bloomfield last week. I met many, many people and had the opportunity to engage with groups of people. The schedule was set up by Superintendent Andrees and the current Board of Education and I had an opportunity to meet with parents, the educational foundation in West Bloomfield, support staff in the central office, the administrative leadership team and then there was a reception for community members.
Also, I got to participate in the Michigan Day Breakfast. My impressions are very engaging people, high energy people, very interested in what’s happening with West Bloomfield Schools, very proud of the offerings that are available to the students. I especially enjoyed my time visiting the schools and meeting students and teachers and parents in my rounds throughout the schools.
Tell us what drew you to pursue a career in educational administration. Growing up, was being a teacher your goal and if not, what were your ambitions?
GH: Well, as you can tell from my resume, I was a teacher for seven years and as I was teaching, I thoroughly enjoyed teaching, I very much enjoyed working with students. At the time I was teaching, I really didn’t have a thought I’m going to be a principal, but somewhere along the third or fourth year I decided that being a principal would be a great job, as well.
And I became a principal. I was a principal for seven years in two different schools, (a) very interesting and challenging job. I really enjoyed the principalship. From there, I spent time in central office as an assistant superintendent for about seven years and I’ve been a superintendent for the last 16 years.
Being a teacher was not my goal as I was growing up. I, at one time, thought I’d be a banker. I liked math, and another time I thought I would be an architect. my father was in construction. I did a lot of my work in the area of construction, so I was looking at architecture. But somewhere along the line between high school and college, I was drawn toward service orientation and education was appealing because of working with young people and engaging and interacting with young people on a day-to-day basis. So I made the decision early in my college career to pursue an education degree in elementary education.
You earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Minnesota before earning your doctorate from the University of North Texas. What did you write your thesis on to earn your doctorate?
GH: My thesis was written in the area of looking at special education students and matching instructional methodology to their preferred learning styles. So I did an action-research project and worked with resource teachers in the school system I was a part of at the time in Garland, Texas, and worked with resource teachers in teaching concepts to special education students. I found from that study that perhaps we were over identifying special needs students and we were not doing as effective a job in designing instructional approaches that would match their learning styles.
I think special education, gifted education, really looking at the entire spectrum — teaching is a challenging job. You have students in your classroom at any given time, the continuum is very broad and how can a teacher best differentiate his or her instruction to meet the needs of the students within that class. And so, special education, yes, but also gifted education, I just think we need to continue to do an effective job of meeting the students where they are rather than having them fit our particular approach to a subject.
You climbed the ladder starting as an elementary school teacher in Minnesota and worked your way up as an Executive Director in Texas and an Assistant Superintendent in Missouri before becoming the superintendent of the Glenview School District in Illinois. What were some of the obstacles you had to overcome and lessons you had to learn along the way?
GH: I think the challenge with any educator is to find the right mix of challenge for students and building capacity in teachers and making sure that we are continually improving student results.
Professional obstacles, I didn’t look at them as that. I was progressing in my career. When I was a teacher, I wanted to be the best teacher that I could be. When I was a principal, I wanted to be the best principal that I could be and continually looked for ways to improve my leadership capacity and the capacity of teachers within the buildings I was principal of.
At the central office level, it just changed the scale. I was more focused at the principal level on teacher development; at the central office level, I’ve been more focused on developing principals in their leadership capacity. And then when I became superintendent, it’s looking at all aspects of the operation, from the personnel, to the business side, to the curriculum instruction side and the facilities side and bringing it all together.
And really the major difference between the principalship and the superintendency is one of scope and scale and looking at all aspects of the superintendent position. Also, the whole community engagement piece. With the local, state and national political dynamics that are in place today, I find that very challenging in a positive sense and enjoy that part of the superintendency.
What will you remember most about your tenure in Glenview and how hard is if for you to say goodbye to that district?
GH: The most I will remember will be the people and the high engagement of people. We have a highly engaged community of high expectations. We have a very competent, highly engaged professional staff, support staff. We have a school board that is really focused on what’s best for the short- and long-term needs of students.
What I’m most proud of in Glenview is bringing a systems approach to our total operation. When I was hired as superintendent eight years ago in Glenview, I had another superintendency prior to Glenview. I was told by the board that they wanted to have a school system vs. a system of schools. There are eight schools in Glenview and they were pretty autonomous and the board wanted to have more of a systems approach.
And so over the eight years, I’ve been able to accomplish that and we truly have a systems approach. We have a strong focus. We have a very strong alignment between the various departments, personnel, curriculum instruction, business office and we have a very clearly articulated strategic plan with very clear benchmark goals and benchmarks. We have a publicly displayed dashboard of indicators of success, so we’ve managed over the eight years to come a long way to becoming a very strong aligned student focused system.
Actually, there was a personal reason (why I considered leaving). My wife and I decided two, three years ago that we really wanted to relocate to Texas at the time. Both of our parents were alive, but they were elderly and they were experiencing some health problems and I had been in Texas before, so Cindy and I decided (to) look at moving back to Texas.
At that point, I expressed my long-term thinking with our board of education and we, the board and I, developed a leadership transition plan. Of course, plans are subject to change and unfortunately in our case, my wife’s mother passed away. Shortly thereafter, her father passed away and we were already into this leadership transition plan. So at that point, what it really did is it expanded our horizon for looking at opportunities, so our desire wasn’t solely to go to Texas. At that point I opened up my thinking and looking and looked actually nationwide.
The kind of school district that we wanted to be in, we wanted it to be in a community that was supportive of schools, had a high quality of life. Both my wife and I enjoy becoming engaged in community life, community activities and so the school districts that I applied for over the last few months have been school districts similar to West Bloomfield — high performance, high expectations, high community involvement and attractive places to live.
As you are probably aware, the West Bloomfield School District is currently dealing with issues ranging from cuts in state funding to the Board of Education’s recent decision to privatize the district’s custodial and transportation services. As the new superintendent, how do plan to address these and other issues the district faces in order to help see that West Bloomfield Schools remain among the best in the state?
GH: Obviously to carry on with the implementation and make sure that the implementation plan for all of these issues, the plans are solid, and that we accomplish the objectives of each of those decisions of the board.
Financial challenges are everywhere in public education today. In Illinois we have our financial challenges as a state. We have a totally different type of funding system which maybe allows my situation in Glenview a little more flexibility than what the financial situation is in West Bloomfield. There’s a little bit more local control over education funding in Illinois than there is in Michigan.
But none the less, we’re having to make due with static or dwindling resources while the costs are ever increasing, so concepts like outsourcing or privatizing certain functions that aren’t the primary function of the school district. Transportation and custodial maintenance (privatization), those types of phenomenon happened in Illinois as well. We had to privitize bus service, for example, so it’s not unique to Michigan.
I think the key is to look at what’s best for the short- and long-term interest of students and student development and student learning and try to maximize and leverage the resources that a community has and have those resources be as close to the action, the classroom, as possible. The further away you get from the classroom, take a harder look at those functions, which is what we have been doing in Glenview and, after I leave, Glenview will continue to do similar to what West Bloomfield has been going through over the past several years.
If you could say one thing right now to the parents, students and staff of the West Bloomfield School District about what kind of superintendent you will be, what would you say?
GH: First and foremost, I would say that I believe in the infinite worth and dignity of all people. That being the case, I have a very strong conviction that we, as we go about our day-to-day work, treat people with respect and carry ourselves with integrity as work through the many issues and that in this process, that we treat people with respect, we have an openness about our interaction and engagement, there’s an honesty and a sincere appreciation for the numerous ideas that people will bring to the table to look at improving how we are providing services.
Education is a highly people-intensive endeavor, and so first and foremost, we need to have strong, productive relationships with all of the shareholders in the system: The teacher-student-parent interaction, the principal-teacher interaction, the principal-parent interaction, the central office administrators interacting with the employees.
It’s so fundamental to have a strong core belief in people, but people work in systems, and that’s where I think I bring some strengths to the table. I’m a systems thinker with a people orientation and so I believe in people thriving, if the conditions are right for them, to think out of the box, to take risks, to do what’s right for students and not be impeded by some arbitrary boundaries.
And so we’re all in this together. I think we’re all in it for the purpose of developing students to their maximum potential and we’re here for students’ futures, not our past, and what students need to be successful as they graduate from West Bloomfield High School and go on to their lives and careers beyond high school.