Ron McDermed walks from classroom to classroom, sits in little chairs, takes notes and peers over students’ shoulders as they work. He seems as much learner as superintendent during these morning rounds at Cedar View Elementary School, a regular routine to see what’s working well educationally in Cedar Springs Public Schools.
You might think the teachers are on the spot here. But it’s the students to whom McDermed pays most attention and of whom he asks the most questions: “Did that make sense to you? You got this down? Are you ready for the test? Have you done this before?”
Flipping through a math workbook, he asks a student, “Is there a bigger thing you’re trying to learn?” “Algebra,” she answers.
Walking down the hall to the next class, McDermed compares notes with Principal Andy Secor. He looks and sounds less like a man about to retire than one who’s just started the job.
“I love it,” McDermed says of spending time in classrooms. “I think kids are cool. It’s always interesting to see how they learn and how they think.”
That child-focused curiosity has kept him going since he first set foot in a classroom 40 years ago as a teacher. As he prepares to step down this month as superintendent at age 62, McDermed still lights up when he talks of students.
“We have to value every single child,” he says. “Each one is special. Whatever it takes to meet their needs is what we have to do.”
Led District through Tough Times
McDermed is retiring after 25 years at Cedar Springs, the last five of them as superintendent. He will be succeeded on July 1 by Laura VanDuyn, named by the school board in March to assume leadership of the 3,400–student district.
The Muskegon native says he approaches retirement with both excitement and trepidation, but feels the time is right.
“It’s a new opportunity and a new adventure for me,” he says. “I feel really good about the district. I feel like we’re in a great place.”
During his tenure at Cedar, including as an elementary principal and assistant superintendent, he oversaw the development of new programs and construction of a new middle school. But he also weathered financial struggles and staff cuts. He admits his five years at the helm have not been easy.
“It’s been a rough time to be a superintendent,” McDermed says. “A big challenge has been keeping centered on kids first. How do we keep as much resources on the classroom and the kids as we can?”
McDermed’s humility, approachability and sense of humor have helped the district survive tough times, said Board of Education President Brook Nichols. She credited him with helping to pass a 1-mill tax for improvements in 2012 after voters earlier rejected it.
“He’ll definitely be missed,” Nichols says. “He’s got a good heart.”
McDermed also supported new approaches to instruction and fostered a spirit of collaboration district-wide, says Karen Tackmann, a longtime faculty member and instructional support coach.
“He really embraced everything that makes teaching and learning better for students,” Tackmann says. “The gifted child, the struggling child — he wanted every one to have an advocate and a voice.”
Supported Innovation and Collaboration
McDermed points with pride to innovations made under his leadership, along with a collaborative approach to everything from instruction to teacher contract negotiations. Trained coaches like Tackmann work with teachers in every building, and teams of teachers called professional learning communities meet regularly to share successful strategies.
Such efforts stem from his early days as an elementary teacher and reading consultant in Portland. He spent 12 years there and three as a K-8 principal in Fowler before coming to Cedar Springs in 1989. He was named associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction in 1997, and implemented the Parents as Teachers early childhood program that later expanded county-wide as Bright Beginnings.
Hired as superintendent in 2009 to succeed the retiring Andy Booth, McDermed steered the district through rough financial waters, trimming $3.5 million from the budget in five years. Key to staying afloat, he says, were financial transparency and a collaborative bargaining process based on shared values. The teachers’ union once gave back a scheduled 2 percent raise because of the district’s financial straits, he notes.
“Even though decisions were sometimes tough, people were OK with it because we knew we were in it together and doing it together,” McDermed says.
He also worked to build community support through partnerships with civic groups and churches. “He made an intentional purpose of healing some relationships that had been broken a little bit,” says Nichols, the school board president. “He made a conscientious effort to open the schools up to anybody that is serving kids.”
Meanwhile, he’s fostered classroom collaboration through instructional rounds like the visit to Cedar View Elementary. He tours classes with other administrators and teachers to observe how teachers and students interact, then meets with the others to share observations.
Whether kneeling down to work on math problems with students or chatting with a teacher who’s expecting a child, McDermed’s love for the work of education is clear. It’s the people of Cedar Springs Public Schools that he will miss most after he leaves, he says.
“I feel blessed to have had this opportunity to be a part of this community, and part of giving back and sharing with others,” he says. “It’s all been great.”