Kirby discusses the challenges and successes the district faced during the pandemic
By Megan Kelley
After a school year like no other at Lake Orion Community Schools, Ben Kirby has officially completed his first year as district superintendent.
In the early months of 2020, the district’s board of education went through the process of hiring a new superintendent, voting unanimously to hire Kirby.
When Kirby officially started with the district in July 2020, he was eager to meet new community members and immerse himself in the Dragon community, something that proved to be difficult in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Last year was a challenging year to really have full and complete immersion into a community,” Kirby said. “During a pandemic, following the protocols that were in place in our community, we’ve learned a lot around COVID, so there’s more flexibility and understanding around COVID now. It’s becoming more commonplace to be able to immerse.
“But I certainly had a great opportunity to meet a number of individuals within the community and they were through one-on-one type meetings and that went quite well.
“The biggest challenge was not having the opportunity of some larger congregate-type settings of the traditional things that happen within the community, but, by and large, I did have the opportunity to meet a lot of quality people and learn about the district in the format in which we were in,” he said.
Kirby also made it a point to actively show his support for students by attending extracurricular activities like athletic events and performing arts shows.
“Being part of the extracurriculars allows me and others to see what the community values are,” said Kirby. “It is important for me to do those types of things because I want to be known in the community and I want to be known as a supporter of our students, regardless of their participation level.”
While it can be difficult to begin in a new role as superintendent, Kirby started in Lake Orion, a less than traditional school year — indeed, one fraught with more health and social challenges usual.
“When we look at everything that we went through last year, the biggest challenge was really helping people manage through all the conflicts that we faced. We had social unrest across our nation, our state, we’ve seen that a lot. We’ve seen the political sides of COVID and probably the COVID piece has probably been the most vocally challenging piece for all educators and certainly superintendents who are charged with making decisions that impact the entire district,” said Kirby.
“It didn’t matter what decision we made, when we communicated it out there, there was always a group of push back regardless of what the decision was. No matter which way it was perceived to be favored, there were the other perspectives that people were quick to share, which is great and that helps. That’s part of the communication loop but that’s the biggest challenge; just recognizing that no matter how we proceed, that it was going to cause some conflicts for some individuals in some situations,” Kirby said.
Throughout the year, Kirby worked with a variety of people nearly every week to ensure that informed decisions were being made. These meetings included epidemiologists, district staff, superintendents of districts within northern Oakland County, local health professionals, health department officials and others.
“I honestly spent 10-15 hours a week just simply around COVID,” Kirby said.
Despite the challenges, the district also had a lot of success when it came to academics and student achievement.
By the end of the school year, the district’s in-person student attendance percentage was in the low 90’s, a positive sign for the district moving forward.
“When you look at our student accomplishments, our students still achieved a high level on standardized testing. We still had a lot of families who opted for in-person instruction,” Kirby said. “We think (it) is the most valuable way to impact students’ education. We created a Dragon Virtual program that we’re proud of, and it continues to evolve as we learn new things.”
District staff also gained a lot of knowledge with informational technology while remaining committed to their work and providing the best education possible in the learning environment.
“It’s really important to know that the staff in general here is highly committed and outstanding professionals. They’ve been awesome to work with, highly supportive and doing everything they can to help our students be successful,” Kirby said. “We did a lot of things for our students with IEP’s (Individualized Education Program) that other districts look to and try to duplicate.
“And our commitment amongst our general education population as well, when you look at some of the creativity that was necessary from our instructional staff, it’s just amazing that they were able to pull off the work that they did.”
One of the most noticeable changes has been the progress with the school bond, with a number of projects slated to be completed this month and several having been completed recently as well.
“A number of the changes that have been made will directly impact students and student learning,” Kirby said, specifically mentioning the new furniture that is expected to be introduced to elementary classrooms by the start of school this fall, as well as the new technology that both students and staff have received.
“Certainly, the facilities are something that I think our community and our students and staff will be proud of,” said Kirby. “The ECC, the Early Childhood Center, that is a building that will impact our students and our community exponentially as we move forward with the quality of what’s within — we already have really great programs and now we have a great facility to support those programs.”
This upcoming school year the district aims to provide choices for families and create new partnerships within the community. The district is also in the process of redoing their strategic plan.
With a year behind him, Kirby is looking forward to the start of another school year.
“It’s going to be a great school year and I think that we’ve got to keep focus on that. It was just like back in October when we brought our students back for the first time: the energy level just really catapults forward,” Kirby said.
“I’ve kind of been doing some reflecting and when I look at my calendar, the pieces that give me energy is when our kids our in the building, when our staff is in the building interacting. So we’re really looking forward to getting everybody back and building our community back within the school and holding some of the functions that have made Lake Orion what it is,” Kirby added.