Q&A with Justin Ralston, Essexville-Hampton Public Schools Superintendent

Justin Ralston started as the Essexville-Hampton Public Schools Superintendent on the first day of school, Aug. 29. Before joining the Essexville district, Ralston worked in and around Washington, DC. He holds a Bachelor's Degree in Education from Indiana University and a Master's Degree in Social Work from Howard University. Ralston also earned an Executive Masters in Leadership from Georgetown University. He is working on his Doctorate in Education Leadership and Innovation from Marymount University.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

A: I'm excited to be here. I started on Aug. 29, coming from being a school leader in Washington, DC and DC public schools for the last nine years. I lived in the Washington, DC area for around 15 years. I'm originally from Indiana. I graduated from Hamilton Community Schools, which is one of the smallest public schools in the state of Indiana. We had K-12 all in one building. My first teaching job was in Bloomington, Ind., and I absolutely loved it. 

Q: What inspired you to come to Essexville?

A: That was something I spoke about in my first interview here. In full transparency, my first time in this part of Michigan was my interview back in July. But I grew up on the Michigan/Indiana border. My family spent a lot of time vacationing in Michigan, particularly Northern Michigan. They have a cabin in Northern Michigan as well, so I would often be coming back over different holidays for snowmobiling, summer sports, and winter sports. I was really fond of the area and loved the outdoors. For a variety of reasons, including family reasons, we were looking to re-locate. Michigan made sense, it brought us closer to family, I love the outdoors, and have loved my time in the state. 
Garber High School
Q: What are your goals? What would you like to see happen in your first year here?

A: I started the same day as the students did, but I did get a chance to come up and meet with teachers and staff during the pre-service week. I was asked then, 'What initiatives are you going to be bringing? What is it you want to do as our new superintendent?' I hope I'm holding true to the way I responded to that. I had a keen idea around building out my leadership philosophy. It requires community engagement and involvement. It requires transparency and a lot of listening. I'm not coming with a set list of ideas. I've experienced a variety of different things teaching and working in Indiana, Maryland, and DC. I think what really makes school development and improvement happen authentically is when you can really mobilize and galvanize the community to uplift different ideas. 

When I got here, I engaged in a 100-day listening tour where I volunteered as a server at Coonan's Irish Hub every Thursday night in the month of September to meet the community. I held listening sessions at the Excited Goat Coffee Co. every Friday morning in the month of September to have parents and teachers come out before school. I've gotten Student-Superintendent Cabinets up and running at Garber High School and Cramer Junior High School. I issued an anonymous survey to staff. I also allowed all staff in our district to set up one-on-one meetings with me to share whatever they would like to share. In addition to that, I did one-on-one meetings with all of our leaders and school board members.

From all of that, I built out the framework for our Strategic Plan, which has four components. Number one is to ensure excellent schools. Number two is to ensure that we develop the whole child. Three is focused on empowering our people, especially as we're still moving through the pandemic and the complexity of what it means to work in education with all the different stressors people have. And number four is about engaging our families and our community with the work we're doing. 

Now we're going through another engagement series that we're launching in January and February to review the how and the what of fulfilling those components. I think almost everybody is going to agree that those four components sound great. But we really get into the weeds when we talk about how we are going to do this and what we are doing to ensure that we're actually focusing on the components. We're getting ready to begin that work now.

Q: Since the pandemic, the issues schools face have been constantly in the news. I see stories on staffing issues, the substitute teacher shortage, busing concerns, enrollment decline, and learning deficits related to remote learning. Each one of those is a big issue. What are you doing to try to address these issues?

A: You're 100% right. I've spent over 20 years in education and I think the last three have been the most challenging for a multitude of reasons. I think the way in which I was raised, the power of having my kindergarten teacher at graduation, has stuck with me. The reason I moved to DC was to get my Master's Degree in Clinical Social Work. In my view, education and social work, the marriage of the two, is critical for public schools. Being able to bring people together and have a civil discourse around the work that we have to do in education is critical. There is no doubt that there is high stress and anxiety amongst our parents, staff, leaders, and superintendents. It's also an incredibly challenging time to be a school board member. So how do we find the opportunities that we can invest in to make sure that we're hitting those core components in order to meet the needs of our students and families?

One example of something we've already done to meet those needs was to launch a start-up fund to build a STEM Center at Essexville-Hampton Schools. We have a strong robotics team that has competed at the national level. Dedicated students, dedicated teachers, and volunteers coaches support it. Alumni have come back to speak on how the robotics team truly changed their life trajectory. 

We need to look at different ideas, through this idea of community engagement, to be able to come up with ways for us to rally around goals so we're not focused on the division that is occurring right now in public education. I have no doubt there's going to be some discourse through that and some challenging decisions, but if we can continue to focus on listening to what our stakeholders have to say, we can build a plan. I'm confident we can do that.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about the STEM Center?

A: We had the opportunity to visit the STEM Center in Hemlock. They have truly done an amazing job. From what I observed and read, that has been a transformative experience for the community. It connects to what's happening nth region, the state, and even nationally. It exposes students in real world ways to STEM-related careers. We're looking forward to building a standalone structure. We've learned from what Hemlock has done and they've been great to work with. Our goal is to have a regional STEM Center. Our students learn best when they can interact with students in the districts surrounding us.

Q: What can parents and the general community do to support the schools now?

A: Feedback is critical. We are about to share a stakeholder engagement opportunity that is open to everyone. We'll be doing four sessions in the evenings on Thursdays where I'll share some high-level information about student achievement. I'll frame the reason why we've identified these four areas as the right areas to focus in on for our Strategic Plan. People will have the opportunity to share their ideas for how we can ensure that we have excellent K-12 schools. How do we invest in early childhood education? How do we ensure that the schools provide enriching experiences for students?

Additionally, the Board of Education has launched a Committee of the Whole, which is open to the public. The Committee of the Whole will meet monthly with the focus on enrollment. I think that connects with the Strategic Plan because people make decisions about where to send their children. We launched the Committee of the Whole in December and it's had a great start. We're looking forward to holding our next meeting in January. I've already spoke to some community members who had children in the schools 10, 15, 20 years ago. They're looking forward to coming out to be able to offer their ideas and suggestions for ensuring that we're providing a world-class education to students and families.

Q: What's something you wish people knew about education? 

A: We have incredibly dedicated staff and teachers who are doing anything they can to meet the needs of students. Our folks are human so there is a lot to grapple with. What I have learned personally, and seen in my position, is the complex reality of what our adults deal with on a daily basis, both within our buildings and in their personal lives. There's family, sickness, illness, trauma, and it seems to have multiplied in recent years for a number of different reason. Yet I remember very distinctly that my first day on the job when I went to each of the buildings, I was so impressed with the level or organization and excitement that existed in all four of our buildings. I think that sometimes that gets lost. People don't see what is happening on a day-to-day basis and they don't see how people are pouring their hearts and souls into this.

I wish people would know the intense work that our teachers, staff, leaders, custodians ... everyone is pouring in every day. This is why we added empower our people as a component in our Strategic Plan. We know our students are great. The challenge that we have is how do we make sure that we're putting our best selves in front of our students every day? Through my one-on-one sessions, I heard a great deal about adult wellness. As a result, we were able to collaborate with the Dow Bay Area Family Y to offer all our employees two-year family memberships. I worked very closely wit the board to make sure transparency was there. We didn't use any general funds. We used wellness grants to focus on our people. We are thankful the Y was so willing to work with us and that the grant funds were available to make this two-year commitment to all our employees. We're excited to launch that on March 1.

The community is invited to offer input into the district's Strategic Plan during four Stakeholder Engagement Series meetings from 6 to 8 p.m. on Thurs., Jan. 26 at Bush Elementary School, 800 Nebobish Ave.; Thurs., Feb. 2 at Verellen Elementary School, 612 W. Borton Road; Thurs., Feb. 9 at Cramer Junior High School, 313 Pine St.; or Thurs., Feb. 16 at Garber High School, 213 Pine St.