Written by Don Ratzlaff Tuesday, 21 August 2007 10:55
Jerri Kemble has risen to the top of her professional field, and even broken a barrier of sorts along the way—all without leaving the supportive confines of her extended backyard.
The new superintendent for the Centre school district has called neighboring Herington “home” all of her life.
“The only reason I can be here (as superintendent) is that I have an incredible support system,” said Kemble, referring to her husband, Kurt, and her parents and parents-in-law, all of whom live in Herington, too.
As an educator, Kemble believes in the notion that it takes a village to raise a child because, in part, she has experienced it.
“If I didn’t have that village (in her hometown), I couldn’t be here,” she said. “I’m very grateful. It’s not a solo act at all. I depend on them very much.”
Kemble also includes the flexibility of her two children, a daughter who is a senior in high school this fall and a son who is in the eighth grade. Both agreed to transfer from Herington to Centre when their mother took her new job.
A 1979 graduate of Herington High, Kemble earned her teaching degree at Emporia State University in 1983, then began a 13-year stint as a classroom teacher in Herington Middle School.
During that time, she decided to take counseling classes at ESU to enhance her effectiveness in the classroom.
“As I was teaching, I began to see that kids had so many needs, and I felt I was not reaching them,” she said.
Kemble said she had no intention of leaving the classroom “because I loved it.” But after she attained her degree in 1998, one of her professors encouraged her to check out a counseling opening in the Chapman school district.
“I checked into it and was offered the position,” she said.
The Chapman district is based in a small town but includes some 500 square miles, drawing about 800 students at six school sites.
Kemble said she loved her work, and was given “full range” to develop the counseling program in partnership with “some incredible people.”
In 2003 Kemble was named “Counselor of the Year” by the Kansas Counseling Association.
Along the way, Chapman’s middle school principal encouraged Kemble to pursue administration training. She accepted the challenge and earned her master of science degree in educational administration from ESU in 2002.
The following year she was named principal for three schools within in the district, a job she enjoyed for the next four years.
While in that role, Kemble established professional learning communities within the district so peer teachers at the different sites could get together to share ideas and track student success.
Kemble also developed student-improvement teams that structured cooperation between the various professionals that might be working with a particular student. The team could involve the classroom teacher, principal, special education worker, school psychologist, counselor and social worker.
She and her coworkers presented a workshop on that model at the KCA fall conference in 2006.
In the meantime, Kemble was working on being licensed as a superintendent, and began a doctoral program in educational administration at Kansas State University.
After she passed the licensing test, her superintendent at Chapman called her attention to the opening at Centre, which included being principal for kindergarten through grade four.
“The superintendency was new, but there was a piece of it I felt I had a little comfort level with,” Kemble said.
Kemble said her years with the Chapman district helped prepare her for the job at Centre. While the enrollment is significantly smaller—around 270 students—the district also encompasses a large area, about 400 square miles.
“There’s less population, but I understand the dynamics (of a large rural district) and have a feel for that, having been in a district like it for nine years,” she said.
By ascending to the superintendent’s role, Kemble joins a small but growing contingent of women in Kansas. Of the 296 districts in the state, only 39 (13 percent) are led by women.
Kemble said becoming a superintendent is simply an extension of her personal mission in education.
“What always drives my decisions is, ‘Is it good for kids?’” she said. “When you’re at this level you can make decisions that are good for kids. In the classroom you might affect 20 kids, as a principal you might be affecting 120 kids.
“Now, as superintendent, you can affect an entire district—maybe not one-on-one, but you can make decisions for kids that are beneficial. I like being able to help a lot of kids.”
Kemble sees a declining enrollment and teacher recruitment and retention as two key challenges in her new role. But she said she has been impressed with the staff currently in place.
“Centre has an excellent reputation; the educators are excellent,” Kemble added. “I’ve always heard good things in academics and sports. I thought this is a district I’d like to be part of.”
In her new role, Kemble has already began implementing one of her guiding passions: character education.
“When we talk about skills for the 21st century, we are educating kids for a future we know nothing about—we don’t know what skills they’re going to need because the jobs they’re going to have haven’t even been invented yet,” she said.
What every student will need, she said, is what she calls the six pillars of good character: responsibility, respect, citizenship, caring, fairness and trustworthiness.
“I believe every school has a character-education program, and it’s all in how the adults act and treat people in the building,” Kemble said.
“I’m saying, let’s focus on it and have a systematic character-education program where kids learn that common language we’re talking about it and letting them know what the expectations are.”
The emphasis will be integrated into all grade levels. At the elementary level, students who demonstrate the six characteristics will be receive stickers at weekly “challenge assemblies.” A hallway paper chain, made of links listing those good behaviors, will visually reinforce student accomplishments.
“I believe all kids want attention, and a lot of them don’t care if it’s negative or positive,” Kemble said. “But if we can send the message that we’re focusing on the positive, they will step up to that and work for the positive attention.”
Kemble said her training in counseling has molded her administrative philosophy.
“So many times I think as administrators we just dole out the punishment,” she said. “But I see it as a training opportunity where we can educate (students) so they can return to the classroom with new skills and new education.”
All things being equal, Kemble said she hopes to remain at Centre for the seeable future.
“I like this area, I have family around here,” she said. “I’ve been here a long time, and you want to give back to your community. I’m fortunate to be here.”