ST. ALBANS – Ned Kirsch was an innovator who cared for others – his students, his friends and his family.
These were maybe the most obvious takeaways from the memories shared by Kirsch’s friends and colleagues during a celebration in honor of the late Franklin West superintendent Saturday afternoon in St. Albans.
Speakers took the stage at the Collins Perley Sports & Fitness Center to paint a picture of a committed educator, family man and friend who was always looking to better prepare his students for their future, even if it meant a few challenges to the status quo. As two students from Bellows Free Academy – Fairfax put it toward the end of Saturday’s program, Kirsch was getting them ready to “rule the world.”
“What he wanted for his kids, is what he wanted for children throughout our district, throughout the state and throughout the country,” said Mary Lynn Riggs, a retired Franklin West Supervisory Union (FWSU)’s curriculum director who emceed Saturday’s program. “Is there a better tribute to man than to recognize that?”
Speakers ranged from local colleagues to fellow superintendents from as far away as Ohio. Students talked about how encouraging Kirsch was as their superintendent, and state education leaders praised Kirsch as a groundbreaker in Vermont education.
The Vermont Superintendents Association posthumously presented Kirsch the inaugural World Class Educator Award.
One of the first speakers invited to the stage was current Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French, a former superintendent and one of Kirsch’s colleagues and friends, who spoke of Kirsch’s widely-known interest in bringing technology into schools.
“Looking back on it now, so much of what brought Ned and I together was the conviction that the education system needed and still needs to be centered on the personal learning aspirations of students,” French said.
He offered a shortlist of the ways they’d discuss introducing technology through avenues like social media, Google Apps and other, more physical devices, and how they’d use that technology to connect different educators across the state and even the world.
“Ned was always challenging the status quo and pushing for better approaches,” French said. “He was never satisfied.”
Elaine Pinckney, the superintendent from the Champlain Valley School District attending as a representative from the Vermont Superintendents Association (VSA), followed French by presenting Kirsch with VSA’s first World Class Educator Award.
“He pushed our thinking and was a constant voice for an education system that was future facing, looking ahead at the world that our students would be living in and ensuring that all of our systems, structures and decisions were aligned with that vision,” she said.
Pinckney cited Kirsch’s hand in drafting a State Board of Education-adopted document that would later inform Vermont’s education standards and the state’s World-Class Education Agenda.
“It is fitting, and though bittersweet, that the very first recipient of the Vermont Superintendents Association World Class Educator Award is awarded to Ned Kirsch, for his innovative leadership and commitment to students,” she said.
Superintendents Mario Andrade and Matt Miller, from Rhode Island’s Bristol – Warren School District and the Lakota Local School District in Ohio respectively, spoke as Kirsch’s colleagues through the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools.
Under Kirsch, the Franklin West Supervisory Union became the only supervisory union or district in Vermont to join the League, which promotes tackling education challenges with more novel approaches to programming in schools.
They both talked about Kirsch – affectionately referred to as the ubiquitous “Ned from Vermont” by Miller – as a passionate educator who had a “true compassion about others” and was less of an “office guy” and more of a “classroom guy.”
“The first time you meet Ned, it felt like he had a connection with you,” Miller said. “We certainly all had a connection through the League of Innovative Schools.
“We all love him, miss him and want to be more like him.”
Retired Essex Town School District Superintendent Jim Fitzpatrick followed. Fitzpatrick, a colleague and former boss – Kirsch was the principal in Essex Middle School for about a decade – introduced Kirsch first as a rabble-rouser of sorts and then a friend.
Fitzpatrick said he was first introduced to Kirsch through Fitzpatrick’s role as one of the founders of SchoolSpring, an Internet startup linking educators to hiring school districts.
A contracting issue made SchoolSpring’s initial launch free for Vermont schools, but despite the complimentary programming, Fitzpatrcik said, “We would get emails from this guy named Ned Kirsch telling us how to make our free service better.”
“I was a little irritated by some of his suggestions,” Fitzpatrick admitted, earning laughs from the audience. “What’s really irritating was when his suggestions were correct.”
As Essex’s superintendent, Fitzpatrick said Kirsch was a “valuable ally” for navigating a district with “more intrigue and undercover operatives than most intelligence agencies.”
“I found that, as principal, Ned would have all these suggestions and ideas that would make his school and the district a better place for kids,” Fitzpatrick said. “Sometimes his suggestions weren’t universally popular, but they were usually right…
“Vermont needed Ned,” Fitzpatrick concluded. “He challenged us to think differently.”
Arguably the most significant praises Saturday didn’t come from Kirsch’s fellow educators or superintendents, but from a pair of BFA students Kirsch would brag about one day “ruling the world.”
Natalie Bates and Kiana Labor, two student leaders at FWSU’s only high school, took the stage to describe Kirsch as an encouraging superintendent who took an active interest in his students’ education.
Labor described a time she and Bates led a visiting educator from another school through BFA Fairfax. Kirsch had accompanied the tour and, after a stop in one classroom, he approached Labor and asked about her plans for the future.
“He asked me ‘What is your next big adventure?’” Labor said. “I told him [Bates and I] were on a committee for graduation requirements for proficiencies. He smiled after I said this and said, ‘Kiana, you and Natalie are going to rule the world some day.’
“At that moment, the man from the Innovation School came up and Kirsch turned to him and told him very sincerely, ‘We’re going to be working for Kiana some day.’”
“This was something [BFA Fairfax high school principal John Tague] and Mr. Kirsch would joked about all the time with us,” Bates said. “But every time he joked with us, I couldn’t help but think about all the things Kiana and I had accomplished.”
“He believed we could do anything. He wasn’t just our superintendent, he was the one who pushed us to reach for the stars,” Bates finished. “One day, Mr. Kirsch, we will rule the world.”
Saturday’s final speaker was Tom Walsh, BFA Fairfax’s elementary school principal and, by multiple accounts, Kirsch’s best friend. “There are so many people that meant the world to him,” Walsh said. “Ned connected with all of us, and his gift of love and friendship will endure.”
“I consider myself the luckiest person on the planet to consider Ned my best friend,” Walsh said. “I would not be who I am today without him.”
Kirsch passed away April 10 due to complications of heart disease. He was in his early 50s.
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