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A veteran superintendent looks back on 10 eventful years

Kenowa Hills — Gerald Hopkins — known to most everyone as Jerry — became the superintendent of Kenowa Hills Public Schools in July 2011.

Thirteen school years later, he said it’s been an incredible journey.

During his time in the district, Hopkins helped create a partnership with Davenport University to implement the Middle College Program, allowing students to earn an associate degree while enrolled at Kenowa Hills High School. 

He also launched Pathways, in 2012, to provide a nontraditional instructional setting for high school students. 

Under Hopkins’ leadership, the community passed a $55 million bond, in 2016, after an identical request was defeated the previous November, in a ballot proposal that was itself pared down from a $78.6 million request turned down earlier in 2015. 

All that, plus the COVID-19 pandemic, has made for an eventful decade indeed. 

As SNN celebrates its 10th anniversary, we sat down with Hopkins to reflect on the last 10 years in his role as superintendent.

In celebration of our 10th Anniversary, your School News Network team will bring you a wide variety of stories that tie to the decade – like the one here. We’ll re-publish each school district’s first stories and update engaging profiles of students and educators. Additional stories will highlight a decade of change in schools and public education. And we welcome your ideas! Just email us at SNN@kentisd.org

‘I recall in my first few days being here … walking into our high school fieldhouse, turning on the lights and reality hitting that this is the greatest opportunity I could ever imagine.’

— Superintendent Jerry Hopkins

What drew you to Kenowa Hills? “I always saw Kenowa Hills as a very special place … It’s intriguing, this diamond in the rough. My entire professional career has been in Kent County, previously at Grandville and Wyoming Public Schools, but I aspired to be a superintendent. 

“When the Kenowa Hills position came open, it was the one and only position I applied for. Initially, I didn’t have the aspiration to be in administration, but I grew in my interest to be a leader and was given opportunities by incredible people who had confidence and trust in me.”

Superintendent Jerry Hopkins regularly visits classrooms to read to students and interact with teachers (courtesy)

Describe your first year as superintendent: “Like any first year in any new position, it was a blur. I can’t even believe that this many years have passed. I recall in my first few days being here … walking into our high school fieldhouse, turning on the lights and reality hitting that this is the greatest opportunity I could ever imagine.”

However, Hopkins learned the hard way how unpopular leadership decisions can be on the seniors’ last day of his first school year, when he and the then-high school principal sent home 65 seniors for riding their bikes to school, with a police escort but without notifying the school. The principal and Hopkins later apologized for over-reacting to the senior prank.

“The bike incident at the end of the year, nothing can prepare you for that,” he said. “It taught me so much and meant a lot that people believed in me, had confidence in me and supported me during an incredibly challenging experience. That’s the nature of the job; there are super highs and super dark lows and the fortunate thing is there are way more highs than there are lows.” 

Superintendent Jerry Hopkins strives to balance the workload of his role with visiting students and staff in the schools (courtesy)

As a good portion of your tenure, how did the COVID-19 pandemic change the way you do your job or reinforce how you were doing it before? “I am super-proud of the way we responded as a district to COVID. From the very beginning, we knew food was going to be a hardship for our families. … We started our food deliveries from March until June 30, and every single day I was a part of that experience, shouldering up with our food service team to make the lunches and road on the bus to deliver to families.

“To this day, we still struggle to understand the impact of COVID, both on mental health and academics,” he added. “I know we made the right decision by adding the mental health services we have, our student and staff assistance program and a nurse in every building; we’re proud of that.”

What has changed in education over the past decade? 

  • Technology… “is forever changing. It’s amazing how much has changed since I’ve been here. We went from removing chalkboards to putting in whiteboards, to having 1:1 devices for students almost overnight.”
  • Classroom design: “There is so much more thought that goes into classroom design and what we know about how students learn; everything from the chairs they sit in and the lights in the classroom.”
  • Safety and security: “Security is a huge change. I used to have the mindset where I could never see the day where we lock down our school. Now, we have to think differently and our community accepts that. They want their kids safe, but we don’t want our community to be locked out of our schools.”

Lessons learned from 13 years as superintendent: “It’s really important to have a deep understanding of your community, the beliefs and traditions. It’s super-important to make sure you can take in as much information, but also not waiting too long to make a decision.

“I pride myself in getting to know the staff at a very deep level, about their interests and families and getting to know students and their families. You have to surround yourself with great people.”

Read more from Kenowa Hills: 
‘Creating a feeling of compassion & care’
Students learn manufacturing jobs not all ‘greasy and grimy’

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Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark
Alexis Stark is a reporter covering Byron Center, Caledonia, Godfrey-Lee, Kenowa Hills and Thornapple Kellogg. She grew up in metro Detroit and her journalism journey brought her west to Grand Rapids via Michigan State University where she covered features and campus news for The State News. She also co-authored three 100-question guides to increase understanding and awareness of various human identities, through the MSU School of Journalism. Following graduation, she worked as a beat reporter for The Ann Arbor News, covering stories on education, community, prison arts and poetry, before finding her calling in education reporting and landing at SNN. Alexis is also the author of a poetry chapbook, “Learning to Sleep in the Middle of the Bed.”


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