Ken Hinton took over as superintendent of Peoria Public Schools nearly one year ago. A lot of positive changes have been made during his short tenure in the post, and Hinton said he foresees a bright future for the district through slow, steady progress. “I see myself as a servant, one who’s been given a tremendous opportunity to make education in our community a world-class experience for students and families. I realize this will take time, but it’ll become a reality. We didn’t get to where we are in a day, and it’ll take longer than a day to reach the excellence we all are striving to attain.”
Hinton has been a teacher and administrator in Peoria schools since 1969, beginning his career as a teacher at Irving School. He’s been in administration at Harrison School, Trewyn Middle School, and Valeska Hinton Early Childhood Education Center. He was assistant superintendent for community programs at Peoria Public Schools, vice president of operations and regional vice president of Edison Schools, Inc., and most recently served as deputy superintendent of District 150.
He received a Bachelor’s degree and Master’s degree from Bradley University and earned administrative certifications through Illinois State University and Western Illinois University. Among his many honors, he’s received the Administrator of the Year Award, Partners in Peace Award of Excellence, induction into the African American Hall of Fame, the E.L.H. Bradley University Alumni Award, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Award, and was named Peoria’s Outstanding Educator.
He and his wife have five children.
Tell about your background, schools attended, family, etc.
I was born and raised in Peoria. My father’s family came to Peoria shortly after 1900; my mother’s family moved here much later. I’m a product of the Peoria Public School System. My schooling began at Washington Grade School on Moss Avenue in 1951; the school now is the location of our Adult Education Program and our Peoria Alternative High School. I also attended Irving School, Lincoln School, Roosevelt Junior High School, and graduated from Manual High School in 1964. My college years were spent at Bradley University, where I graduated in 1968.
Our family is much smaller now than it was a few years earlier. When I was a child growing up here in Peoria, our home was the center for much family, neighborhood, and community life. Our doors were never locked, and our home was always open to all. At any given time, our home was full of life and full of people. My mother taught us at an early age that we were to be kind and considerate to all and that service to others was one of the greatest gifts we could give.
My childhood was full of friends who I’m blessed to have to this day. These friendships have been in place for well over 50 years. These friends are considered to be my brothers and are as true as brothers can be.
Who or what influenced your decision to enter the field of education? Tell us about that decision and some of your experiences.
My decision to enter the field of education is directly related to my mother. After graduating from Bradley University, my interest was the law. My mother advised me to try education, of which I was most skeptical, due to the fact that so many people in our family were educators. It was my thought that I should do something different, but it pleases me to say my mother knew best. My first day of teaching sealed my fate. The students I was assigned to were challenging and engaging. They required from me everything I had to give to be successful with them. In giving everything I had, I received so much in return from them. They gave me purpose, meaning, and much worth. I shall never forget them or my first day of teaching. I’ll always be grateful to all of my students and thankful to Alice Taylor, who hired me and gave me the opportunity to teach.
You’ve been a teacher and an administrator. What are the pros and cons of each? Do you think all administrators should be required to be teachers first?
There are far too many pros to respond to as it relates to being a teacher. The one that comes to mind first for me is that, as a teacher, you have the opportunity to make a defining difference in the lives of students. I don’t know many other professions where one can influence and affect the life of another individual in such a profound way. Teaching, when done right, affects a student in a positive way for a lifetime.
This past winter, I was at an awards ceremony with my family. Our youngest daughter, who is a graduate of Peoria High School and the University of Illinois, saw her former English teacher from Peoria High School in the assembled group of people. You would have thought a movie star had entered the room. Her face lit up, she smiled, and she immediately made her way to say “hello” to him. His work, and the time he spent teaching her, will last a lifetime with her. Without a doubt, he’s made a difference for her.
Another pro about teaching is seeing the students you’ve had as a teacher grow up and be successful. I wonder if students know how rewarding it is for teachers to know that their students are doing well. It means so much.
The con about teaching is that it does require a lot of work and time when done well. You give so much of yourself because it means so much to you that your students do well. But this all pales in the face of seeing a student learn a new concept or a child telling you “thank you” for helping him understand when before he didn’t.
As an administrator, you have more of an opportunity to bring about positive change on a greater scale for students. The down side of this is that you’re further removed from students and parents. Administrators of today are faced with a greater array of concerns than they were 20 or 30 years ago. This is due to the changes that have taken place in our society. The family structure has changed, values that were sacred 30 or 40 years ago are being challenged and altered. These and other issues consume much of the time for building principals and other administrators and teachers.
As to whether I think all administrators should teach or not, I don’t think it’s always necessary. If you’ve taught, it provides such an advantage. There are some individuals who have a gift when it comes to administration, and clearly the need for them to have taught isn’t necessary.
How has the student/teacher relationship changed since you first began teaching?
In the past, respect was given, in most all situations, to teachers. Now, in many instances, that respect must be earned. Many students of today are skeptical of adults in general. Our society forces things on children when they aren’t ready to receive those responsibilities or pressures. The other part of this is that, in many homes, what children need most—time and love from their parents—they don’t receive. So when these children come to school, they’re missing a needed component in their lives. I’m not saying all children are being deprived of this needed affection. What I’m saying is the number of these children who aren’t being emotionally grounded has increased dramatically. Teachers who genuinely care for their students and expect and require nothing but the best from their students develop good relationships with students and parents.
There was a lot of media scrutiny during the time in which you were appointed interim superintendent. Can you describe that time?
The media might have made a lot of this, but for me the issue at hand was doing what I felt would be best for our school district and community. I received a lot of input as it related to me in regards to my return to the district, but at no time was there doubt in my mind as to whether or not it was the right thing to do. I was asked to serve, and that I will do.
Our school district receives a lot of unfair criticism. Our district, like many other urban districts across this country, is a microcosm of our society. We’re a diverse district in an ever-growing, diverse country. Unforeseen issues and challenges are thrust upon our district, as they are on our country, and then the media asks us why we, as a district, let it happen. We don’t manufacture the guns, we don’t issue the divorces, smuggle in the drugs, or physically abuse students, but when a student comes to school with a gun, drugs, or abused, the media asks us why or how we let it happen. This is most unfair and doesn’t reflect or portray all of the good that takes place in our schools. Rather than looking at society as a whole and saying, “How did we allow young people to get drugs, guns, or be physically abused?” and offer ideas on how to make it better for these kids, it’s much easier to say to schools, “How did you allow this to happen?”
Regarding pressure to fix our reputation, we, as Peoria Public Schools employees, are in the process of transforming our school system into one of the finest school systems in the nation. The fine work done by all of the District 150 staff will speak volumes for the board of education and the children and families it serves.
Speaking of guns, what steps have been taken by the district to ensure its schools are safe?
We’re in the process of having an expert safety consultant come into our community to work with our local experts and give us input into what else we can do to ensure the safety of our children. In the very near future, we’ll convey what we learn from these consultations. We’re doing everything we can do to ensure the safety of our students.
How has your life changed since becoming superintendent?
I now know what it means to have a job 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I’ve placed more expectations on myself, and once more, I’m driven to serve our students, our school district, and our community.
What are your goals for District 150 as superintendent? Are those goals achievable?
The two most pressing goals for our school district center on raising student achievement for all of our students and returning our school system to financial stability. Other goals include reconceptualizing education for our students and families; the full implementation of our strategic plan; ongoing professional development for our teachers; the acquisition and implementation of a district-wide assessment system; building new schools for our students, families, and community; offering more languages in all of our schools; expanded programming in our schools for after school activities; a higher degree of collaboration with our community partners; more parent involvement in our schools; and reconnecting to vocational and technical educational opportunities for students who choose not to go on to college. Are these goals attainable? Absolutely. Just watch the talented district and community people make these happen.
What are some misconceptions people may have about District 150 and its schools?
The misconceptions happen because many don’t spend time in our schools to understand and experience all of the good that takes place in them. We have teachers and staff who truly care for our students and challenge them to learn all they can. So often the media puts a negative spin on our schools because of circumstances we have no control over. I’m not saying we’re perfect—no one is at that level—but the leaders and individuals who’ve been educated in the Peoria Public Schools over the years take a back seat to no one. The district staff is in the process of making our school system even better.
The challenge that faces us, as it does in many urban districts, is how to close the achievement gap for poor and minority students. I truly believe we’re putting the pieces together. Currently, it’s being done in isolated experiences in some of our schools but not all of them. Our challenge is to figure out how to make it systematic.
Are you in favor of closing some schools and building others?
Yes, I’m in favor of closing some schools for two reasons—one being a reduction in the number of schools will make us more financially efficient. The second reason is that many of our older schools can’t support the new programming needs of our students. Our children deserve the best we can give them. Currently, many of our older buildings aren’t meeting this expectation. There are those who say a building doesn’t determine whether a child is going to learn, and I agree wholeheartedly. But I would also be quick to say we can show how we value our children and families by putting and keeping them in the best physical environment we’re capable of giving them.
Yes, I’m very much in favor of building new schools. The two schools we’re planning on building will be national models for education. We’ll build one on the south side of Peoria and one on the east bluff. They’ll be educational complexes that will address the whole child. They’ll be birth through eighth grade schools. This concept will be developed and implemented in both schools. It’s my expectation that there will be waiting lists for these schools because of the excellence in education they’ll provide.
What’s your opinion of the Edison program? Do you think Peoria is the right place for it?
The Edison program is a good program that has many positive aspects. Is Peoria the right place for this program? I think it is. Our problem as a school district is that the cost of the program causes a strain on our finances, which puts an added stress on our budget. Therefore, my position at this time is that we can’t afford it in light of our current budget concerns. As superintendent, if the Board of Education feels this program should remain in our district, I’ll support the board and program fully.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received since becoming superintendent?
I’ve received so much good advice that I can’t say one piece of advice is better than another. What so many people have advised me of is to protect my health, of which I’m sorry to say I haven’t had time to attend to. My work keeps me totally engaged, and it’s so important to me to succeed for the kids that I just don’t take the time to see about myself, but I will.
Is there anything else you’d like to discuss?
One other area should be addressed, and that’s our board of education. It pleases me greatly to know our board is composed of individuals who truly care about the wellbeing and academic success of all our children. Like all boards, there are times when not everyone is of the same mind, and that’s fine. What’s of great importance and meaning is that they all are of the same mind when it comes to doing the best for the students of District 150. They’re presently surrounded by many monumental decisions that will affect this school system and community for years to come. I applaud this board for their care, commitment, and dedication to our students and this community—also, for their willingness to participate with a most positive and supportive city government and governmental bodies.
Peoria is blessed to have so many civic, social, and business leaders committed to the wellbeing of all of its citizens and children. IBI