Konarska Understands Students

March 5, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Kevin Konarska understands that all students — no matter what the school system — have needs, and he wants to make sure the Kent Intermediate School District meets those needs.

As the new superintendent of the Kent Intermediate School District, Konarska said he must understand the needs of students in the urban schools as well as in the rural. After 26 years of experience in several schools and school systems, Konarska said he believes the position he started in January is a good use of the skills and abilities he has gained over the years, a capstone to his career.

When Konarska started his previous position as superintendent at Thornapple Kellogg Public Schools, he was ready to stay in that position until his retirement.

“I was very happy in the Thornapple Kellogg school district,” he said. “I thought I could be there for the rest of my career.”

But when the opportunity arose to apply for the KISD’s superintendent position, Konarska said he felt his experience in suburban, rural and urban school districts made him a good candidate for the position.

“Every district has their needs,” he said. “To work for an organization where the goal is to meet the needs of students in all those situations was an opportunity that was too good to pass up.”

Konarska started his career as a speech and language teacher with Grand Rapids Public Schools in 1980, shortly after graduating from Central Michigan University with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and communication disorders.

After working for six years in that position, Konarska accepted a job as the assistant director of the Ottawa Area Center in the Ottawa Intermediate School District. The year he spent there was the only year in his career that he was not employed by a KISD school.

He returned to KISD as the principal of Lincoln School, where he worked for three years before becoming the supervisor of secondary special education for the Grand Rapids Public Schools.

Konarska then went to Forest Hills Public Schools as director of student services and assistant superintendent for personnel before becoming the superintendent of Thornapple Kellogg Public Schools, where he served from 2002 until becoming the superintendent of KISD.

Michael Washburn, retired Forest Hills superintendent, said he had the chance to see Konarska wear many different hats during his 10 years in the district.

“He’s very, very knowledgeable about all aspects of education and is an incredible problem solver,” he said. “He’s been an architect of a number of the new initiatives that have been undertaken in the last two or three years and has the incredible ability to bring people together.”

Washburn said Konarska’s experience in diverse districts has prepared him for the position.

“His experience is such that he’s done quite a lot of different things and he’s excelled in every one of them,” Washburn said. “He’s just the real deal and so sincere. He’s a perfect fit.”

Konarska said he has learned it is a mistake to think that students in suburbs do not have needs, though they may differ from the needs of urban students.

“There’s a feeling that a student that is in a more affluent district, they are not challenged in a way that other students might be,” he said. “If you are having trouble learning, if you have some challenges that keep you from doing as well as others in the classroom in that type of district, you may stand out more. Making sure every child is successful in the classroom is a challenge in every school district.”

Having worked with the Thornapple Kellogg district, Konarska said he realized that smaller districts do not always have the resources that larger districts do, and challenges can arise when it comes to training and curriculum issues.

“Student achievement should be the basis of everything we do,” he said. “We need to develop students in a manner that they’re prepared to be good citizens and they’re prepared to go into a new global economy.”

Konarska said his time as the supervisor of special education with Grand Rapids Public Schools taught him how important community involvement and partnerships with community organizations are to a school district. During that time he worked with area organizations such as St. John’s Home and Bethany Christian Services, among others.

“My experience in Grand Rapids certainly taught me how important it is that we don’t work in isolation,” he said. “What’s so important for the person in this position to have is the ability to develop relationships, not only with the superintendents, but with the community agencies that work to meet the needs of our students.”

There may not be another person to better attest to Konarska’s passion for education than his twin brother, Keith, superintendent of Grand Haven Area Public Schools. Besides sharing a birthday, the two men have had strikingly parallel career paths, both receiving their undergraduate degrees and first master’s degrees from Central Michigan University, and second master’s degrees from Grand Valley State University. The brothers started their careers in the Grand Rapids Public Schools at the same time, and Keith was principal at Ken-O-Sha Elementary while Kevin served at Lincoln. Both then worked their way through administration until becoming superintendents.

“Our careers have been like mirrors,” Konarska said.

Keith Konarska said it is not surprising that he and his brother, who communicate nearly every day at least by e-mail, share so many similarities in career and in life, because in addition to being identical twins, they share the same goals and passions.

“Early on in high school, I recognized my passion for working with children and for wanting to be a part of the education system,” Keith said. “Kevin and I shared that passion and carried it on to our initial positions in the workplace.”

Keith Konarska said he is excited for his brother’s new position and believes that his experiences have made him a good candidate for the job.

Now starting his third month on the job, Konarska said he is focusing on bringing all the school district leaders together. With eight new superintendents this school year, Konarska said it is important that they connect and find a collaborative spirit and a shared vision for the district.

“I certainly recognize that superintendents are pulled in so many directions,” he said. “We’re doing all we can to narrow our focus on the areas that impact student achievement and teaching and learning.” 

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