The Kansas School Superintendents Association has selected John Allison, the Olathe School District Superintendent, for its Superintendent of the Year, from among three finalists who included Glen Suppes, the Smoky Valley Schools Superintendent and Justin Henry, of Goddard.
It is Suppes, though, who gets our attention. Months ago he succumbed to the nagging of colleagues who had insisted that he apply for the Association’s honor; they thought he deserved it. Suppes knew of the excruciating process – all that poking about, its paper work, the interviews – but he decided to plunge in, and by October there he was at the top with two others. A trio from among the hundreds who supervise the administration of 286 Kansas school districts with combined enrollmentsof more than 450,000 students.
Suppes is at the summit where he belongs. He has been there for nearly all the 17 years he has been at Smoky Valley, an administrator known for making things happen, for urging the school community to move ahead and to stay ahead.
Long before “technology” became a buzzword for innovation in education, Glen Suppes was working long and hard 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.”
At a meeting of the Smoky Valley School Board in Lindsborg 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. The seven-member board – careful, judicious, thrifty – was prepared. Suppes had shown them documents, testimony, articles pro-and-con, the paperwork of scientists, the research of engineers and educators.
He and board members had traveled to facilities that researched the benefits and pitfalls of advanced technology, where and how it would take local education into the next world and the next century. Yes, this is about a pile of new high-tech machinery, Suppes told the board. But it is most about the students, about preparing them for an advancing world ever-changing, ever-innovating.
We don’t want them to be left behind or left out, he was saying. We can’t do that to them. “This is for the kids,” he said. The board approved a bold plan to equip the upper classes at Smoky Valley High School with Apple laptop computers, to be checked out for the school year, like “books.” The longer plan, at an initial cost of $450,000 – a large sum for a district, then, with an $8 million budget – was to phase in the classes, a year at a time, until all students were using MacBook Air laptops.
The mission has evolved over more than a decade. The district has built an information technology (IT) staff, creating interactive studies across the curriculum; soon came the Smoky Valley Charter School, the nation’s first daily, live, online classrooms. It started 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.
Vision_Tek is a high-tech lab, but one that connects almost daily with the community. Students generate revenue for the district by helping people who’ve brought computers for repair or maintenance; they have joined classes for senior citizens, and joint writing projects that have produced engaging memoirs and chapters of local history.
They have helped create and design web sites, served as guides for novice travelers along the pitted landscapes of Facebook, the quick-sands of Twitter, the matted jungle growth of the Internet itself. Today, nearly every student in the district has a MacBook Air, and the support, online and off, to prepare them for an ever-evolving world. (Kindergarteners, first and second-graders share their MacBooks.) And the teachers? The district’s Tech Integration and Support Specialist helps them to advance with technology’s sharp turns.
Suppes has taken the district from the chalk board to the promethean board, a giant, wall-sized interactive white board. The Big Chief and fat pencil have morphed to the Mac Padlet with cursor. This is due to Suppes’ vision, his belief that school board members would understand new technology, its significance and consequence, while ever-conscious of the investment in tax dollars.
Suppes had a feel for a crucial component of Smoky Valley heritage, one incubated in the settlers’ belief that they must provide for the next generations. This is at work in the administration of a school budget, its prudent savings and accounts for capital improvements and equipment, and money put away in case of storm or other misfortune.
The schools promote a liberal education, one that brings an appreciation not only of technology but of the minds behind it – the curiosity of DaVinci and Newton to the creativity of Edison, Fermi, even Steve Jobs. Without an appreciation of languages, history, the arts, even scientists and engineers would have less color in their lives. In this special case a community has selected citizen boards to advance this mission. In turn, they trust Suppes to show them the way.
Suppes has been in education for more than 30 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. He has evolved, intuitive to education, its complex culture, to the challenge in managing its viscous rules and personalities, even the community heritage of schools and schooling. He handles it all with aplomb.
In addition to his skill as an administrator and educator, Suppes is a musician, a talented acoustic guitarist and singer – and an accomplished auctioneer, one with the accomplished rhythmic barrage of those professional speed-talkers and finger-pointers – another special art.
Suppes may not have his Association’s top award but he is among its most accomplished veterans. 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.”