Three new superintendents talk about priorities, challenges ahead

Three area school districts — Holland, Zeeland, and West Ottawa — are among the dozens statewide to have new superintendents in a year that has challenged schools in myriad new ways.

Staffing has been a challenge across the spectrum, Ottawa Area Intermediate School District Superintendent Kyle Mayer says — from superintendents and teachers to bus drivers and custodians.

“It’s challenging like never before,” he says.

The OAISD oversees 19 educational districts in Ottawa, Muskegon, and Allegan counties, including public and private districts, as well as adult education programming.

It’s a similar story across the state. According to the Michigan Association of School Boards, superintendent vacancies are up by a third from last year.

Nearly 100 school districts across the state were looking to fill their superintendents’ roles, says Brian Davis, Associate Executive Director for Professional Learning for the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators.

The majority of those superintendent vacancies were filled by candidates with no superintendent experience — mostly principals and, to a lesser extent, other administrators. A few moved directly from the classroom into the superintendent’s office, Davis says.

Davis recently left his position as the Holland Public Schools superintendent to join the MASA where he coaches school leadership and has a bird's eye view of the state's education system.

Many others have announced their retirement effective at the end of the year, he says.

At the OAISD, Mayer, who, himself, is rather new at his job says new leadership offers the chance to look at existing problems in new ways and describes area school district employees as “exceptionally smart and talented people.”

Before taking on the superintendent role Jan. 1, Mayer was an assistant superintendent with the OAISD since 2008.

The OAISD includes 11 traditional public school districts. Five of those, including Jenison and Hudsonville, have new superintendents within the past 18 months. Additionally, Eric Forseth became the Head of Schools for Holland Christian Schools this spring.

“Ottawa Area is blessed in that it’s an attractive place to live with high performing schools,” Mayer says. “We really are able to attract and retain the best in the business.”

The districts have a tradition of collaboration, Mayer says.

“We seek to be good neighbors to each other,” he says.

The challenge now is to build those relationships, so collaboration can grow, he says, and collaboration depends on relationships.

In August, the superintendents participated in an all-day retreat. Much of the day was spent on team building exercises, Mayer says.

The Lakeshore asked the new superintendents at Holland, Zeeland, and West Ottawa Public Schools to introduce themselves to the community. Here’s what they had to say.

Zeeland Public Schools Superintenent Brandi-Lyn Mendham
Zeeland Public Schools
Superintendent Brandi-Lyn Mendham

Mendham is the district’s first female superintendent. She has worked at ZPS since 2014.

1. Why did you take this job?

“I have a heart and passion for students and families and know and appreciate the value of a high-quality educational experience. Having been part of the ZPS administrative team for the past seven years, I knew well the dedication and commitment our team has to provide the very best to our community. When my predecessor announced his retirement, I saw the opportunity to continue the important work in a system I respect and value. Our ZPS family knows that I am their biggest advocate and will do anything to help them to carry out the critical work they do each day with kids. I do appreciate challenges and this job has certainly provided some very real ones that we are collectively working through as a team keeping kids at the center of our work.”

2. What are your priorities this year?

“My priorities for the year are truly healing and reconnection as we continue to make our way through the challenges of the pandemic. In addition to fostering relationships in our system and community, our priority is to provide a high-quality educational experience for each of our students. While we know there are many things about the current year that aren't ‘normal,’ our focus remains on keeping kids at the center of our decision-making. In my welcome back message to our staff, I shared how we can focus on gratitude, grace, and grit as we work each day on behalf of children and families keeping us grounded in what really matters.”

3. With all the challenges going on, what are the best ways the community can support local education and educators?

“The community can support local education and educators by understanding that together we are all experiencing the challenges the pandemic has provided. While we recognize there are varied perspectives, we encourage respectful discourse and open hearts. We know the value of relationships and know that our work is better when we invest in those strong partnerships with families. We would encourage our community to join in, come alongside, and be a part of the solution as we seek to focus on the good and remind ourselves what students are capable of. I would encourage our community to reach out with stories to celebrate what they see going well in education focusing on the successes and the commitment of our educators to show up each day and pour into our future generations with care and concern. We appreciate the support and know that our district and community is a special place because of it.”

Holland Public Schools Superintendent Shanie Keelan
Holland Public Schools
Superintendent Shanie Keelean

Before Keelean came to HPS, she was associate superintendent of school leadership and development in Waukegan Community Unit School District #60 in Waukegan, Ill. 

1. Why did you take this job?

“I am passionate about education and love challenges. I believe my educational path and career has chosen me. I prepare myself with the training, experiences, and life lessons so that when the opportunity arises, I am prepared and ready for the next chapter of my life. I have made positive impacts for students as families as a teacher, athletic coach, instructional coach, assistant principal, principal, associate superintendent and hope to have time and the opportunity to make a large scale impact for the students and families of Holland Public Schools.”

2. What are your priorities this year?

“Priorities this year as the new superintendent include listening and learning to the staff and community of HPS. We are also continuing our journey district-wide with Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, along with improving our Multi-Tiered Systems of Support. It is very important to stay safe during the COVID pandemic, and continue in person teaching and learning.”

3. With all the challenges going on, what are the best ways the community can support local education and educators?

“Local education and educators need support to be safe socially, emotionally and physically. We need to continue to encourage a "risk-taking" environment so teachers and students can be actively engaged in the teaching and learning processes that happen within and outside of their classroom walls. Creating support for school systems to support families in their life and educational journey is an ever growing need. We have a need to build capacity in our current staff, and build a new generation of teachers as we are facing shortages in many areas and there will be more retirements in the near future. We need to partner with families and universities to build the next generation of educators to serve our schools and districts.”

West Ottawa Public Schools Superintendent Tim Bearden
West Ottawa
Superintendent Timothy Bearden

Before joining WW, Bearden was the Chief Academic Officer of Detroit County Day School in Bloomfield Hills.

1. Why did you take this job?

“I was initially attracted to West Ottawa for its location, the diversity of the community, the breadth of programs and the school’s great reputation. As I got to know people in the school community it became obvious that the people and the district are special and have a deep appreciation for the school district — it’s a tremendous place.”

2. What are your priorities this year?

“Our priorities include the safety and wellbeing of our school community, the development of our Strategic Plan, planning for equity of access, and most importantly giving our students a great year with as much normalcy as possible under the circumstances.”

3. With all the challenges going on, what are the best ways the community can support local education and educators?

“We so appreciate the support of our parents and community. Their appreciation and commitment to our kids and educators is extraordinary. As we work to provide equity of access for all, contributions of time, or contributions to our Panther Fund are welcome offers of support. Any gesture of support for our staff — a kind word, a note, or volunteering of time is appreciated and meaningful.”
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.