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Field Trip: It’s All About Your People
Indian Hill Exempted Village School District is not large, but it has a great reputation and a culture of achievement.
Like any fruitful organization, the central pillar of that success is the people at Indian Hills. Today, Superintendent Kirk Koennecke and Assistant Superintendent Mark Ault discuss how their hiring, onboarding, and ongoing professional development all contribute to teacher quality and student achievement.
- What the hiring process looks like from a candidate’s perspective – even when that candidate is applying for the position of superintendent
- How culture plays a vital role from an employee’s earliest days at the district
- The role of community, students, and parents in creating that culture
- What individualized professional development looks like
KIRK KOENNECKE: I think it all starts with human capital. If you select the right people, and if you have a strong process in place to select those people and to onboard them and mentor and support them along the way, then it’s much easier to put a personalized professional learning culture in place and trust your people to not only do some self-directed learning, but to teach within the organization.
Cincinnati, Ohio is home to Indian Hill Exempted Village School District. It’s not a large district — it has 4 schools, around 2,000 students. It’s highly rated — on its Ohio School Report Card, Indian Hill has an A. Today we’re talking with Kirk Koennecke.
KIRK KOENNECKE: I am the superintendent of the Indian Hills schools in the Cincinnati, Ohio area.
And we’re also talking with Dr. Mark Ault.
MARK AULT: I’m the assistant superintendent of administrative operations.
You may recognize Kirk from a previous episode of Field Trip, when he was superintendent at Graham Local Schools, also in Ohio. 2019 is his first year at Indian Hill. He just got hired, just went through the interview process, just began his first year here, just went through onboarding. And Kirk and Mark will both tell you, hiring matters a lot. When you start with the right people, and trust them to lead, it makes everything else easier.
From Frontline Education, this is Field Trip
We’re going to jump right into my conversation with Kirk Koennecke and Mark Ault. Because Indian Hill is high-performing, and has built a culture that fosters excellence, and because a huge part of any organization’s success is people, I asked talk a little bit about how they look at the hiring process in terms of their overall success — and, what do they think is really key as they continue to support those they hire, over time?
MARK AULT: Well, I think first of all, we’re, we’re blessed in that our community embraces education. It’s very important to them. And so with that interest and that support, we’re able, I think, to attract top quality candidates.
What do we look for when we go to hire? We look for teachers who have leadership capability. That’s a real important quality among our staff. We expect them to be leaders, not just in the classroom with their students, but in their departments vertically across the school district, and also be involved in their own professional organizations, to be leaders in the state, in the community, Southwest Ohio and nationally as well.
Kirk agreed, and sees culture playing a vital role from an employee’s earliest days at the district.
KIRK KOENNECKE: As a new superintendent here at Indian Hill, one of the things that was very attractive to me was that there was a very strong leadership culture already in place here, as Mark mentioned. There are so many strong staff members here in every department, and I think what that allows you to do is put more of a flat model of leadership in place.
And so when Mark talks about leadership capabilities and qualities, I have been able to observe those traits firsthand, whether we’re talking to bus drivers or we’re talking to classroom aides or administrators. The level of quality is something that they’ve paid very close attention to.
And I think it gets reinforced over time in how the leaders of this district communicate that through the hiring process and onboarding new staff. I myself sat through an orientation process where I really was given a lot of information about expectations and what type of culture we have here. And those are high expectations. I think those things help reinforce that culture over time so that the people we bring in are strong, but then they also help each other to stay strong.
RYAN ESTES: I wonder if the two of you could share any anecdotes about how Indian Hill supports new hires when someone comes on board. I’d love any specific examples of how you’ve been able to say, “Hey, welcome to our culture. Welcome to our schools, and here’s how we’re going to bring you into this amazing thing that we’ve created.”
MARK AULT: Well, we have a tremendous mentorship program, and the beauty of it is it is organized and basically run by our teachers. So we have a teacher, mentor coordinator. I will oversee the program and I work with her on making sure that we have plans in place, but it’s really teachers helping teachers from the get go. So once they’re hired and, and there’s a whole long process of hiring and we can get into that later, but our mentor coordinator will take over from there. So the onboarding actually starts as soon as we have a commitment, and I will let her know who the new people are. They are reaching out to them almost instantly. We set up onboarding dates for them to come into the district. But we also assign mentors, veteran teachers in the district that have similar backgrounds, maybe teach in the same department. They actually will connect, and often times we’re hiring obviously in the spring, so we have some summer downtime where they can connect.
Over that first year, new teachers also gather each month to cover issues from a district perspective — like parent conferences and how they work, what’s expected.
MARK AULT: So each month we have a special, unique topic that’s pertinent to them, and it’s timely. And we provide new teachers a two year mentorship, and then we have the informal mentoring that goes on as well.
KIRK KOENNECKE: I think what I would add to that, in terms of the informal piece, new staff here, for example, get a a bus tour of the district and really get to learn a little bit about not just the buildings they’re going to be working in, but the locale and Cincinnati and this region that we’re in. And we really try to encourage them to learn as much as they can about Hamilton County, Ohio, and Cincinnati itself, so that they can connect with community partners and parents from the get go. I know that that’s been a big help for me with this transition and leaders like Mark and our teachers here who have already provided me with lots of resources.
And the other thing that I think is really kind of important is our administrative team tries to get out into the buildings and see the teachers directly and meet with them and talk with them. We do a lot of classroom visits and bop-ins where we want our new staff members to know that we’re there for them and there to serve them. And we use that language, I think, intentionally of serving our children and serving our staff, and I hope that they value that. And we value getting to see them in action with our students.
MARK AULT: I was just going to say, we know the importance of hiring, but then we know the importance of supporting them so that they can be in the best position to be successful. So that’s ongoing and that’s really important to us.
RYAN ESTES: Yeah, two sides of the same coin. And I’d like to look for a minute at that hiring side. I know that the teacher shortage has been a concern for some time now in many places across the country. How are you experiencing this issue?
MARK AULT: Pretty typical, I think, statewide and nationally. We have an abundance of teachers who want to work here, especially if we’re talking about primary school, elementary school, and it’s not uncommon to have 800 to a thousand applicants for a job. But the more specialized areas, intervention specialists, special education, high school physics, high school math, the numbers are a little bit lower there.
We have been really active in getting out to college career fairs, teacher fairs in the spring. We started doing that about five years ago, being more intentional, and even though we don’t often hire somebody right out of college, if they interview well, I’ve got a whole spreadsheet of candidates who impressed us. And maybe we couldn’t hire them at the time, but I try to stay in contact with them and follow their career paths so that in two or three or four years, if there is an opening, we can reach out to them and really encourage them to come back and apply. And we’ve been fortunate in that we’ve been able to land a couple of teachers that way.
RYAN ESTES: I know that Indian Hill has had a lot of new hires this summer, one of which was the superintendent. That’s you, Kirk. I know this is your first year as superintendent at this district, so you can actually talk about what this looks like from the perspective of a candidate and a new hire.
And I’ll ask you about that in a moment, but I wonder, first, Mark, if you could talk about the search process for a new superintendent. Obviously this is a crucial role. You need to find the right person. So how did you do it, knowing that you were really looking for someone who was going to be the right fit for Indian Hill? How did it go?
MARK AULT: It went really well. I think we, we ended up with a really good person. I firmly believe that. We used a firm, we did a national search, and we looked all over the country. To your point, we’re looking for somebody with really quality experience, a great leader, proven track record. We also involved our community. We did a lot of community forums. What are you looking for in a superintendent? Gathered a lot of information from students, gathered information from staff, and then started the process of really vetting the applicant pool down.
And I thought they did a really nice job, both again, informally and then formal interview process. But gathering that input from our community was really important, as well as all of our stake holders, our kids even had a part in it.
RYAN ESTES: And Kirk, what did this process look like from your perspective? Both the hiring and the onboarding process?
KIRK KOENNECKE: Well, it was definitely unique in that from the get go, I had a lot of questions to answer, and some of those questions were delivered to me in new ways. So for example, there was a video screening tool that was used and the consultation firm that Mark and the board of education here used, I think really helped them to focus in on that feedback they got from all the stakeholder groups and ask some really rich questions that caused a lot of reflection on my part.
I knew coming in for the first meetings in person that I was going to be receiving similar questions. And so, as a candidate, I had to do a lot of homework and I expected that, but I was always surprised by some of the questions that come up. And they are always unique to the school culture. And what I learned right away was how high the expectations were here and what type of culture there was.
RYAN ESTES: I’m sorry, I don’t want to interrupt, but I wonder if you could even share maybe some of the questions that really caused some of that reflection for you.
KIRK KOENNECKE: Well, I think, the board of education here wanted to know as well as the staff in the district, they wanted to know, what could I add to the mix? Am I willing to be a part of a teaming culture? Do my own personal beliefs and values mesh with the culture here? Do I want to be innovative and creative and forward thinking while also maintaining some very high standards based on the processes and the traditions that had already been established here? When you have to start really giving some specific examples and concrete evidence that you can do those things, as you know, it makes you think and reflect.
And then that reflection, I think makes you stronger and more open to continuing to learn because at the end of the day, what I’ve learned here, which is what I wanted to share, is that this is a learning culture. Everybody here has a growth mindset and wants to continue to learn, and I don’t think anybody walks around Indian Hill every day acting like they have it all figured out.
I think what we try to do is ask each other for help and ask a lot of questions. I noticed that from the moment I arrived and started talking to people in the interview process, and I was so struck by how warm and friendly and collaborative this culture was. I think one of the reasons that it’s so supportive is people are willing to talk to each other about things and they’re willing to do research and homework together and make mistakes with each other and work through issues together. And that doesn’t happen everywhere. I can tell you that as someone who’s worked in other districts, but that was something I noticed immediately with this team.
RYAN ESTES: Can you talk a little bit more about, once they made the decision to hire you as superintendent and you came on campus, came on board, what were the things that Indian Hill did that might’ve been unique? And I mean specifically here, what are the things that, from your perspective as the candidate being onboarded, that you said, “Ah, that’s brilliant!” Or “What a great way to absorb me into this culture”?
KIRK KOENNECKE: Yeah. A couple of examples, and I give Mark and the team a lot of credit for this. The administrative team in this district purposely and intentionally set up their summer schedules so that I could transition and have time with all of them to work during what might be downtime for a lot of school districts.
So I regularly had an assistant superintendent like Mark Ault by my side, helping me to learn about the culture here. I regularly had the treasurer working alongside me this summer. I was able to transition specifically because the board also provided that time for me to get into the district sooner rather than later and actually start to work with them.
And I think another specific example is that our team immediately began to talk about, “How do we come together as a new team with a new leader and talk about values and talk about our norms?” And so we put together a leadership retreat, and every one of my cabinet members, including Mark, helped to create that agenda.
And we came together early on as a team and we spent time together norming and really talking about our values and our beliefs as a team, so that we would be ready for staff and students. And I think all of those things are very important when you’re bringing in a new leader and having a transition plan in place.
The last thing I would mention is that my board members were extremely gracious about introducing me to key stakeholders in the community, as were some of our leaders. I got to meet some parents and community partners early on because they helped set those meetings up. And those things have all helped me to learn about this culture.
MARK AULT: Ryan, I’ll vouch for that too. Kirk started July 1st but it feels like he’s been here a lot longer, and I just think it’s that we had the July time, but even before then, trying to, again, send him in the right direction, meet the right people. It feels comfortable, I think, for all of us, and I just think that was the whole transition process that we used.
The role of the superintendent, of course, is a lot different from that of a teacher. And Kirk has been a superintendent before — so onboarding for him definitely looked different from that for a new teacher just out of college. I asked what ongoing support looks like for teachers — whether they’re new, or whether they’ve been there for 20 years.
MARK AULT: Well, we have during the day built in common planning time at every building. So they have, on a daily basis, the opportunity to meet with their colleagues who are teaching the same grade level or subject area, and they push each other. Kirk’s right. He mentioned that, and I think about our Latin department and we have teachers that are passionate about teaching Latin and are really good, but they have the opportunity to meet daily and that they’re always talking about best practice and they’re always kind of pushing each other. So there are those kinds of structures put in during the day. We offer, and we encourage all of our teachers to go back, and take classes, and we provide four semester hours of tuition reimbursement for that purpose a year. We also have just been, with Dr. Stewart, she’s our Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning, we’ve added some professional development days. And it’s a beautiful thing.
We’re going to have it next Friday. It’s called Braves Academy. And our teachers will lead it with Melissa’s guidance. We’ll have a menu of breakout sessions that our staff will facilitate and lead, and our other staff members will participate. So we’re learning from each other.
Those are just a few things. We have what I think is unique to Indian Hill, we call it our I-team. And so what we do is, each building has representatives from each grade level and subject area and each building, an improvement team, if you will, and they develop the school strategic plan, the improvement plan for that year, based on data, based on social-emotional needs, and then they talk about the professional development that they’ll need for that. Then the teachers will share that with the staff when they return in August, and then they meet each month during the year. But the unique piece, I think to Indian Hill, is that we set aside five days when school is out in June and five days in August before the students arrive, where the I-teams will get together at each building, but also at the district level. And they’ll talk about their plans for improvement, the goals and expectations for the year.
So when I say we want our teachers to be leaders, they are very much a part of that process. They own it, they feel empowered, and they help our administrators get the other teachers on board and understand the expectations.
RYAN ESTES: Tell me more about this Braves Academy event that you talked about. You said this is teacher led and that you have menus of professional development. That sounds like it’s something that is designed to– I mean, when you say menu, it brings up a picture of someone being able to choose, “I want to take this and then this over here, because these are what meet my needs.” How do you set that up and structure it and decide what’s going to be offered? And who leads it?
MARK AULT: Mark Richardson, our tech director, and Melissa Stewart get together and we’ll set it up from a Google doc type of thing, and we put the feelers out in April with the expectation of, “If you’d like to facilitate a session on a topic, if you want to co-teach it with one of your colleagues, you may.”
I’m telling you, the response has just been overwhelming. And then from that, we have a variety of topics. From a district perspective, let’s say we have a feeling that we need to work on differentiated instruction. We may reach out to a few teachers who are really, really good at that, who maybe are humble and don’t want to share, and we’ll encourage them. But for the most part, this is a voluntary opportunity for them to share their skill and their knowledge. And the topics are instructionally based. Sometimes they’re classroom behavioral kinds of things, motivation, a wide gamut, truly. We do a lot of work in this district.
We call it Courageous Conversations, talking about race and ethnicity and closing the academic gap. And really trying to learn and understand and have more empathy for our students, our minority students in the district and how we can make them more successful. So you could literally take four sessions, four or five sessions, during Braves Academy, and each one could be uniquely different.
And that is kind of cool because, one of the more popular ones last year was put on by a gifted teacher at the primary school, but we had high school science teachers sitting in on a session and having some good takeaways that they’re going to turn around and implement in their classrooms.
Kirk agreed that that menu format — allowing teachers to choose the sessions to attend — is central to what they’re trying to do.
KIRK KOENNECKE: We talk a lot about capacity with leadership, and I think one of the things you have to do in my role is you have to give up control and you have to trust your leaders. And that’s easier said than done for any leader. We all want to be cognizant and responsible people, but at the same time, you have to play up the strengths of your teammates.
And one of the things that you have to do to truly personalize professional learning and truly support teachers in a culture of public schooling today is you have to give them that menu of options for their own learning, and that voice and choice in their own learning. And
I think it all starts with human capital.
If you select the right people, and if you have a strong process in place to select those people and to onboard them and mentor and support them along the way, then it’s much easier to put a personalized professional learning culture in place and trust your people to not only do some self-directed learning, but to teach within the organization.
I mean, we have so many strong people here that can teach our own people the key concepts that they need to learn and reinforce, and what it really takes is trust. And I think that Mark and the administrative team here, with the support of the board, over time have built a culture where we’re able to select and discriminate amongst those candidates that we bring into the district, and then we’re allowed to turn them loose and trust them to lead.
And when you can do that, then personalized learning and professional development and your mentoring programs, they all run so much more smoothly.
And I commend the staff here for that. And I can tell you I’m so excited for Braves Academy and the chance to learn from some of our own staff members next week.
That’s just one example of the great human capital practices that are going on here, and they’re all connected. You know, it all comes back to relational principles and values, and do you build those things into your culture and make them your norms?
So, what do teachers think about what Indian Hill is doing with professional development? And what kind of impact do they see for students?
MARK AULT: Well, as I mentioned earlier, a real intentional program called Courageous Conversations. And it was an offshoot of, oh, five or six years ago, our high school principal came and said, “We’ve got a few kids at Indian Hill High School that are still struggling with reading. And we’re a high academic center of learning. But if our goal is to educate all children, these kids need some help with reading.” And so, again, this is reflective practice, we know that we’re not perfect. We know that there are areas for improvement. So we got this reading teacher and we set up the class, and he came to me and I asked him how it was going and he said, “I want you to come over and look.”
And so I did, and there were eight students in the class, and six out of the eight were minority students. And of the six, five are male. And he didn’t say anything to me other than, “What do you notice?” Well, I noticed that, I noticed that. That’s the state trend. That’s the national trend, unfortunately.
And I’m thinking, “If we’re Indian Hill, we should be able to address this issue. We should be able to close that academic gap.” So right away I guess I got a little defensive and I thought, “Well, did these students just move in?” And he said, “I knew you were going to ask that because that’s what our teachers have been kind of insinuating. And the truth of the matter is we’ve had several of these students for five, six, seven years, and they’re still struggling with reading, so we’re not doing our job.”
So that was impactful, because then what happened was we started having these conversations about, what can we do to help students navigate our hallways? Maybe they’re not, you know, white and affluent, maybe they come and they have special gifts, but what are we doing to get them academically successful? And so we started having what we call Courageous Conversations.
And it started with a lot of self reflection. We built in protocols, how to have those conversations about race and ethnicity, because that’s not an easy topic. In fact, from an HR standpoint, 20 years ago, that would have been taboo, right? You don’t talk about race, sex, religion, politics, but we had to, we had to address it. So I can tell you, firsthand, that we’ve had numerous teachers now that have been engaged in this work come back and say, “I caught myself. I noticed this student and I noticed they were struggling, or I noticed that somebody made a comment that made them feel uncomfortable. And through our conversations, I’ve changed the way that I approached that parent, the way that I approached that student, and the way that I approach my classroom management system and the curriculum that I’m using and the literature that I’m providing. I’m more cognizant of it being more of an equal opportunity. Does it include literature on race and religion and gender?”
And so it’s really expanded, and I think our teachers who have engaged in this work, and we have over 80 teachers in the district that continually meet on their own time, they have these conversations and they talk about our students, I think they are changing their instructional practices, both from a curriculum standpoint, from a relationship standpoint and an instructional standpoint.
RYAN ESTES: And then my other question was to go back to the search for a new superintendent. You mentioned that even the kids had input into that process.
I can remember being in school. I wasn’t in a huge, large district, it was actually relatively small and rural. But even then, I had never met my superintendent. I couldn’t have told you what he looked like. I didn’t know him. How did you get input from kids into that, and what were you looking for from
MARK AULT: First of all, we have 2000 students. We have four buildings. Everybody knows the superintendent. That’s the expectation, that superintendent, whoever it is, is visible. Kirk is the third one that I’ve worked for here, but I knew the superintendent before that. They’re very, very visible. It’s almost non-negotiable. Kirk will tell you and Mark Miles, who was here before us, you attend school functions, you’re there, you get to know kids on a first name basis, kids in our theater program or mock trial, or you go to the band contest, you get to the games, you get to the events and the award ceremonies and you visit classrooms. You get to know teachers, you get to know parents, and you absolutely get to know our students. It’s kind of phenomenal to me, too, because it’s not uncommon for our superintendent to walk into a primary school and a little first grade student go up and, you know, say, “Hi Dr. Miles, Mr. Koennecke.”
So when we use students, we asked for their input, and I think it was middle school, high school. It was a SurveyMonkey. “What do you like about this? What do you want from the superintendent?” Of course you got some answers like “More snow days”. But you know, they wanted to know him. Our kids used to make comments about the superintendent being at the ball games. We do exit interviews with our seniors, which is kind of unique, too. So when we get into May, every senior will have an opportunity to sit in a small group.
Now maybe they meet with the superintendent, maybe they meet with me. Maybe they meet with Dr. Stewart. But we’ll spend almost a whole day with series of groups of eight to ten kids, seniors on their way out. “Tell us about your experience here. What was good? What are some great memories? What are some teachers that have made an impact? What can we do better? What could we think about changing that would make this place even better than what it is?”
But along with the process, I know that when Kirk came on campus to walk around, to get the lay of the land, so to speak, and to meet some community members, we actually had some high school students serve as the escorts and they spoke about their school. They were so proud of the school that they attended. And they probably could have spent all day just walking around talking about it. And then we asked for their input. What did you think?
We involve our students often in hiring processes. When we hired a high school principal, we had three or four students that actually sat in on the interviews and provided their input afterwards. They interviewed four or five different candidates and they were there the whole time. We’ve done that for middle school principals as well.
RYAN ESTES: Hmm. That is great. Thank you so much, . Dr. Kirk Koennecke is Superintendent and Dr. Mark Ault is Assistant Superintendent at Indian Hill Exempted School District in Cincinnati, Ohio. Thank you for taking time to speak with us today.
MARK AULT: You’re welcome.
KIRK KOENNECKE: Thanks for the opportunity. I really appreciate your time and we appreciate your partnership.
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Field Trip is a podcast from Frontline Education, home of Frontline Recruiting & Hiring — a software solution designed to help you proactively recruit more applicants, and quickly identify the best candidates and get them up to speed. For more information, visit FrontlineEducation.com.
For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.