LINDSBORG – The great room was alive with voices, the thrum of conversation. Scores of people were arriving, alone or in pairs or clusters, all to give a “well done” to Glen Suppes at his retirement reception Sunday (June 12) at the J.O. Sundstrom Center.
For the past 23 school years, Suppes has been superintendent of the Smoky Valley School District, which must set a record for superintendent service in a single district. (Heath Hogan, deputy superintendent at Garden City for seven years, takes over next month.)
School superintendents rarely stay in one place for more than a few years, their exits sometimes on a sour note – a budget dispute, fatigue, exasperation, inertia, even scandal. But over more than two decades at Smoky Valley, Suppes mastered the art of heartened leadership. He hired good people, inspired elected officials, elevated the mission, even soothed disgruntled patrons.
He has helped department heads and board members navigate the fogbound political landscapes of state school funding in Topeka. He has been the wizened tour guide, leading the district into technological reform, and education into the digital age. He suppressed anxieties during economic crises in the early 2000s, and throttled pessimists during the attacks on education in the dark Brownback years.
At the Sundstrom, tables of food and drink along one wall and along another, a MacBook Pro launching a Suppes slide show: the man here and there over the years at events, dedications, ceremonies, assemblies, award presentations, in classrooms and at board meetings, riding in parades, everywhere and wherever, it seemed. On Sunday Suppes was in his trademark dark suit, tieless, surrounded by wishers-well.
Question: Can anyone say something bad about Suppes?
“You must be joking,” said Julie Martin, who has been the district’s finance director for 15 years. “The man is brilliant.”
In 2019, Suppes was named Superintendent of the Year by the Kansas School Superintendents Association. He had been one of three finalists in 2017; for three years, peers considered him at the top among the hundreds who lead the administration of 286 Kansas school districts with combined enrollments of nearly 500,000 students.
He has been chairman of the Kansas Council of Superintendents (2011-13), president of the Kansas School Superintendents Association (2013-14), and this year received the Association’s distinguished service award.
Suppes has made things happen, encouraging the school community to move ahead and stay ahead. Long before “technology” became an innovation buzzword in education, he was working to bring it home. It was not for prestige – although that would come – nor was it for the thrill of having all that shiny new equipment.
It was, as ever with Suppes, “for the kids.”
The change began on a winter night in 2004. Suppes outlined a plan to bring the district’s 1,100 students into an uncharted era of learning with laptops – untried in Kansas and, for that matter, most anywhere else. He had prepared the school board, shown them documents and testimony, the work of scientists, the research of educators. He and board members visited facilities studying the benefits and pitfalls of advanced technology – where and how it would take local education into an ever-advancing, ever-innovating world.
“This is for the kids,” Suppes said. Students must not be left behind or left out. We can’t do that to them, he was saying.
The upper classes at Smoky Valley High School would be equipped with Apple laptop computers to be checked out for the school year. The longer plan, at an initial cost of $450,000 – was to phase in the classes, a year at a time, until all students were using MacBook Air laptops.
The mission has since evolved and matured. The district has built an information technology (IT) staff, created interactive studies across the curriculum. The Smoky Valley Charter School, the nation’s first daily, live, online classrooms, was started. It began Vision_Tek, the district’s center for student cyber research and development, also an Apple authorized service provider, the only school district in America with that distinction.
And the teachers? The district’s Tech Integration and Support Specialist has helped them to navigate technology’s sharp turns.
Suppes has been in education for nearly 40 years, as an athletic director, coach and teacher, as a high school principal at Healy, then Kinsley, and Hillsboro; he joined the Smoky Valley district in 2000 as superintendent.
In addition to his skill as an administrator and educator, Suppes is a musician, a talented acoustic guitarist and singer – and an accomplished auctioneer, ready with that rhythmic barrage of professional speed-talkers and finger-pointers – another special art.
All that work, all that leading and learning, all the finance, the depth of commitment in a school board – all of that, he would say, is ultimately “for the kids.”