Devin Vodicka is the chief impact officer for AltSchool and former superintendent of California's Vista Unified School District.
Last week, my friend and colleague, Ned Kirsch, died unexpectedly. Since 2010, he has been the much-lauded superintendent of Franklin West Supervisory Union in Vermont. Like many in the education community, I was devastated. Yet even for those who did not have the privilege of knowing Ned, his legacy of passion, generosity and risk-taking can serve as inspiration for anyone who cares about education.
I first met Ned through the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools in 2014. In the League meetings, school leaders convene twice a year to visit schools and collaborate on projects that spur innovation and expand opportunities for all learners. Despite the growing number of participating districts over time, it remains a close-knit group. Yet even in this network of motivating leaders, Ned stood out — for his keen insights, his gregarious humor, and even his trademark introductions (“I’m Ned from Vermont”).
One of the best things about my role as Chief Impact Officer at AltSchool is that I get to visit schools across the country to inform the work that we do in support of helping districts shift to learner-centered education. Last fall, I was exceptionally fortunate to get to spend two days with Ned to learn about educational innovation in the region.
During my visit to Franklin West, I saw many programmatic highlights that have helped to expand my sense of possibilities in education, from what I might describe as anytime/anywhere proficiency-based learning experiences, to empowering outdoor learning programs — including a very unique maple-syrup production course! If you’re interested, you can see a full recap of the visit here.
While the school programs are exceptional, what I saw shining through more than anything were the examples of effective educational leadership modeled by Ned that made everything possible. I share with you four such observations, so that others may be enriched by Ned’s legacy.
Put the spotlight on others
Ned believed that showcasing the success of others would serve to elevate the broader education community for our shared betterment. For example, during my trip, we also visited two neighboring school districts — Colchester and Milton. Ned made a point of inviting local reporters to cover their work, with the explicit goal of providing them more opportunities to highlight their successes. You can see a resulting article on Milton here. He practiced this personally, locally and even nationally, consistently celebrating other district leaders’ educational successes through the League of Innovative Schools.
Be a connector
Ned understood the value of collaboration and sharing as a key accelerator for collective progress. He worked with his team to create and publish a weekly blog that reflected on challenges and successes, which became a valuable learning resource for others. In our “Dine and Discuss” dinner with school leaders throughout the region, it was evident that Ned was a connector for other leaders.
Do what you love
It was obvious Ned loved his job, and, as a result, all who knew him benefited from his infectious enthusiasm. During our time together, I learned more about Ned’s non-conventional journey to becoming a superintendent. He shifted to education after starting his career as an attorney and discovering that legal work didn’t fuel his passion. He quickly found a home as a school leader.
During our tours, you couldn’t help but notice that he clearly loved to interact with students. In a moment where we were reflecting on how hard the work of school leadership can be, I asked him if he ever second-guessed his decision to take on the complex challenges of improving education. His answer was an enthusiastic, “No regrets!”
Empower learners to solve real-world challenges
Ned knew that empowering learners to solve real-world challenges was not only an effective engagement strategy, but also something that is desperately needed in our communities and society.
In this recap of our tour of Franklin West, he wrote, “We know in society now we need to be innovative and creative. We need to not only be solving problems, but going out there and finding what the problems are and make sense of them.” This belief was evident in the way that students in Franklin West were oriented to solving challenges associated with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals.
After my September 2018 trip to Franklin West, Ned documented the visit in this blog. He opens the post by saying, “I’ve always believed that our district’s goal is to have students prepared to change the world for the better. It is a big goal; it is an essential goal.”
Through his leadership, Ned has changed the world for the better. Let’s honor his memory by continuing the journey together.
It is a big goal. It is an essential goal. Thank you, “Ned from Vermont,” for showing us the way.