Kentwood — Superintendent Michael Zoerhoff has witnessed major growth, change, success and investment over more than three decades in Kentwood Public Schools.
But beyond test scores and bond issues, for him, it’s always been about the people — especially the students.
“When I started back in 1988 as a teacher at Crestwood (Middle School), I wanted to work in Kentwood,” he said. “It was as good as I thought it would be. I have truly loved being a part of this community for 33 years, helping kids and serving the families of Kentwood.”
Zoerhoff, 55, retires from his position after eight years on June 30. He’ll be succeeded by current Godfrey-Lee Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Polston, who will take the reins as KPS superintendent for the 2021-2022 school year.
While Zoerhoff has spent much of the past year stepping up to the challenges of educating students during a pandemic, it has also included big positives, such as the community’s overwhelming approval of a $192 million bond issue on May 4.
“It’s been hard, but I’ve been proud of the way our community has hung together to get through this pandemic,” he said. “I think of the lunches that have been served, the efforts of the staff to take care of the whole child and to make it through.
“We are not there yet, but you can see a bright light at the end of the tunnel. I’m so thankful for the support of the community and so impressed with how they pulled together to get through such a challenging time.”
A Heart for Students
Zoerhoff, who graduated from Grand Rapids Christian High School, received his bachelor’s degree from Western Michigan University and master’s degree from Grand Valley State University. He spent his entire career in Kentwood Public Schools, serving as a teacher, coach, principal, assistant principal, assistant superintendent and, finally, superintendent.
Zoerhoff said many highlights in his career happened during his teaching years. “I loved teaching. The fact that many of my students now work in Kentwood, are community members in Kentwood, or send their kids to Kentwood is a very proud thing for me. The fact they come back and say ‘You were my favorite teacher’ means the most to me.”
Over the years, he taught several different subjects and grade levels.
“It was always more about teaching than it was about content for me, working on those life skills, teaching them how to study, how to set goals, how to succeed.”
Endeavor Elementary School Principal Mark Bea has witnessed Zoerhoff”s enthusiasm for students.
“Mike Zoerhoff has a huge heart for all kids, and every decision he makes and every action he takes is done for the purpose of what is best for them,” said Bea. “He leads the charge of advocating for, celebrating, supporting, and inspiring our students no matter what.”
Meadowlawn Elementary School teacher Julie Brill has also noticed the connections Zoerhoff makes with staff members.
“Mike knows his staff. He’s all about relationships, and has worked hard over the years to develop strong ones with all of his staff,” she said. “When he comes to my classroom, he knows me. He asks questions about my life; he interacts with the kids; he is positive and motivating, and there is no doubt when he leaves the room, that he made a strong impression on everyone. In fact, one of the things I enjoy the most about him is the way he makes me feel whenever I see him. He acts like seeing me is the best thing that happened to him that day. And he does that for everyone.”
Valuing People for Who They Are
Zoerhoff also takes great pride in the fact that Kentwood is the most diverse district in the state and sixth in the country, a shift that he’s been fortunate to witness over three decades.
“The incredible diversity of our schools and our community is something that is unique and special… I love living in a community that values people for who they are.”
To become such a “unified, global district,” the students have set an example, he said.
“I’ve watched Kentwood change over the past 33 years and I hope I’ve been a valuable member of that positive change to who we are today,” he said. “It’s beautiful to watch those kids — how they see the world differently than us adults. They are so accepting and supporting of each other. It’s just a natural way of life for them, and that is beautiful.”
Meadowlawn Elementary Principal Tim Hargis said Zoerhoff has definitely been a big part of that positive change.
“Mike has seen the diversity in our district as a strength. His expectation has been excellence and equity for all,” said Hargis. “In Kentwood, this is not just a saying, but a heartfelt belief.
“Because Mike has truly displayed this belief, consistently, in his words and actions, it has become a way of being for all of us who have the privilege to work in the Kentwood Public Schools. We know that our students, all of them, can be successful and that we, as staff members, can be successful, too, because Mike truly believes that.”
Good Things Are Coming
The challenges Zoerhoff faced during his years in education include the financial woes felt by schools during the Great Recession, and, of course, the impact of COVID-19. But he believes good things are on the horizon.
“I would love to be there to reimagine education after the pandemic,” said Zoerhoff. “We are moving into a very exciting time in education when we can reimagine what we can do in the schools.”
He also expects lasting change: “We’ve all had to learn how to be even more flexible. We’ve changed some strategies, allocated resources in different places. We’ve learned that there is value for some in remote learning. It was important for us all to see that school is more than just content and how important taking care of the whole child is. I think that will last with us all for a very long time.”
Endeavor Elementary fifth-grade teacher John Conlon said Zoerhoff’s legacy will be as a leader who became a role model: “In my opinion, Mike Zoerhoff is the perfect example of great leadership and what leaders should strive to become.”
Brookwood Principal Lorenzo Bradshaw echoed that thought.
“Michael Zoerhoff has been intentional with ‘growing leaders’ his entire tenure in Kentwood,” said Bradshaw. “His ability to empower and trust others to lead is one of his most notable strengths. He has ensured Kentwood will be one of Michigan’s premier school districts for years to come.”
As Zoerhoff talks about retirement, he stresses the fact that he won’t be going far; continuing his role as a district parent and community member is a major priority. Zoerhoff and his wife, Heather, have two children who attend schools in the district. Ella will be a freshman next school year, and Michael will be in second grade.
“I will always be a Falcon and one of the biggest supporters of this school district and community.”