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Career education expert takes on new Kent ISD assistant superintendent position

Kent ISD — Recognizing that career and college readiness is an increasingly important part of K-12 education and seeing the need to align with community expectations in this area, Kent ISD’s school board recently established the position of assistant superintendent of secondary programs and named Sue Gardner to the role.

The new position oversees the five Kent ISD secondary programs, Kent Career Tech Center, Kent Transition Center, Launch U, MySchool@Kent, and Kent Innovation High. Also, for an interim basis, Gardner will be working with the Kent ISD Adult Education program.

“For every organization, there comes a time when you need to assess and reassess its structure to determine if it is aligning with the needs of our stakeholders,” said Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Caniff. 

The leadership of the secondary programs used to fall under the assistant superintendent of instruction, a position that has been vacant for more than a year.  After some review, administrators determined that the position was stretched too thin, with 12 Kent ISD departments reporting to that office, Caniff said. 

Since the secondary program is a core Kent ISD offering with more than 3,000 students across the area participating in those programs, administration decided to create the assistant superintendent position to oversee them.

“All of these programs are run by very capable and talented people,” Caniff said. “When it comes down to it, there needs to be a system of reporting and they need a consultant, they need direction, they need approvals and guidance.”

Because this leadership was missing, Caniff said he discussed with the board creating an interim assistant superintendent position and hiring Gardner, which happened last fall. In July, Caniff said he had “interim” removed from the title.

Sue Gardner was named Kent ISD Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Programs this summer, after holding the “interim” title since fall of 2019

A Proud Product of Career Centers

Gardner had come to Kent ISD in 2019 as a career technical education curriculum compliance coordinator. Her position was funded through a Perkins grant, which is federal funding used to help improve secondary and post-secondary career and technical education programs. Gardner’s focus was to make sure that Kent ISD and local districts offering career and tech education were meeting all requirements for eligibility and capturing all the funding the programs were entitled to, according to Caniff.

“Sue came to us with just a wealth of experience and knowledge,” Caniff said, noting her past experience as an assistant superintendent of career and technical education for the mid-Michigan Eaton RESA and before coming to Kent ISD, she served as the Dean of Business, Industrial Trades and Public Services for Kalamazoo Valley Community College. 

But Gardner’s experience with career tech dates back even earlier — to her own high school experience. 

“I am a product of a career center,” said Gardner, who attended Fordson High School in Dearborn. “I took the health path in dental and knew I had found what I wanted to do for a career.”

Gardner became a dental assistant and then went back to school to become a dental hygienist. After working in that field for about 10 years, she started as an adjunct instructor for Ferris State University.

“It was then that I knew I wanted to go back to school to teach, so that is what I did,” Gardner said. 

Once she had completed her bachelor’s degree, and while working for Ferris, Gardner was recommended for a dental instructor position at the Ionia Career Center, which started her career as a high school career and technical education instructor. Her career path includes becoming the career and technology education administrator for Ottawa ISD and finally she would join the Eaton RESA team. 

“I have strengths in visioning and partnering programs with business and industry,” Gardner said. “In Eaton County, we had a partnership with Farm Bureau insurance company and Olivet College. I was instrumental in starting one of the first regional early college programs between Ingham, Eaton, and Clinton counties.”

Gardner also helped with the implementation of 5 Minute Tops, a Shark Tank-style pitch competition where students would have five minutes or less to pitch a business idea to business and industry partners. Students could win cash prizes to start their business and the winner of the competitions would get a chance to be on “Shark Tank.”

These rocks on Sue Gardner’s conference table remind her to show her appreciation for what people are doing

Hands-on Learning, Real-world Experience

This fall, as the new assistant superintendent, Gardner and all the secondary education administrators hit the ground running as all the secondary programs continue to expand and evolve to meet the changing business world. This has included the Tech Center adding two new medical programs, Medical Assistant and EMT (emergency medical technician), along with revamping the CNA (certified nursing assistant) program into a nursing assistant/CNA offering.  Launch U also is looking to expand by adding an IT (information technology) associate degree Gardner also has supported the MySchool@Kent team as they have become a leader in helping districts deliver content virtually.

With her past career center experience, Gardner hopes to continue to build on the strong base of offerings the Kent ISD secondary program currently has with the hope that every student has the opportunity for career exploration before they graduate. 

“This is not only to meet the needs of business, but to give the students an opportunity to have that hands-on experience in that area, give them the work skills and real world learning that they can carry on into their future careers,” she said.

Getting to know her

Gardner lives with her husband of 27 years, Scott, and the couple have a blended family, her two sons and Scott’s daughter and son. 

Along with cooking and reading, she said she enjoys spending her free time with family and friends but the one that really keeps her on her toes is her pet dog, Isla.

“I have a beautiful Sheepadoodle that keeps me active, because I love to walk and be outdoors,” she said.

As the Kent ISD Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Programs, Sue Gardner provides support to the Kent Career Tech Center, Kent Transition Center, Kent Innovation High, Launch U, and MySchool@Kent
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Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma covers Kent ISD and Godwin Heights. She was born in the Detroit area but grew up in Brighton where she attended Hartland Public Schools. The salutatorian for the Class of 1985, she changed her colors from blue and maize to green and white by attending Michigan State University, where she majored in journalism and minored in photography and German. She expanded her color palette to include orange and black as both her daughters graduated from Byron Center Public Schools; maroon and white for Aquinas College where her daughter studies nursing and also brought back blue and maize for Grand Rapids Community College where her youngest daughter currently is studying music. Read Joanne's full bio or email Joanne.

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