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Principal of the Year took unconventional path to top

Kyle Barnett -   Jul 17, 2014

Louisiana State Principal of the Year Ken Oertling at his desk at Hahnville High School.
Louisiana State Principal of the Year Ken Oertling at his desk at Hahnville High School.

Despite recently being named Louisiana High School Principal of the Year, Hahnville High School Principal Ken Oertling’s life is one that could have gone down a much different path.

Oertling, 40, has quickly risen up the ranks and is entering his 15th year as an educator and fifth year as principal–all of which have been with Hahnville High School. In only his first year of eligibility, Oertling beat out over 250 other principals to take home the award.

Although his career as an educator has been on the fast track, Oertling’s beginnings were much more humble. The St. Tammany Parish native was one of seven children whose early life was thrown into turmoil when his parents divorced when he was a sophomore in high school.

Prior to the divorce, Oertling had been struggling in school.

“My freshman and sophomore year, I failed Algebra 1. I wasn’t doing well,” he said. “You can’t blame it on anything, but obviously there were some things that went on.”

After the divorce he and his siblings were split between his mother’s home in Slidell, his father’s new home in Texas and his grandparents’ home in Mississippi, where Oertling would finish high school.

“It was a very trying time to go from seeing your five brothers and sisters every day to pretty much never seeing them,” he said.

However, this is when Oertling’s life made a change for the better. As a junior he transferred schools and met a teacher who got him on the right track.

“There was a teacher at Hancock High School that kind of took me under her wing. Her name was Betty Allen and she kind of re-instilled the faith that I could get along better than the road I was headed down,” he said.

Under Allen’s influence Oertling joined the student council before turning his academic career around and finishing his high school career as a straight-A student.

Due to Allen’s influence on his life, Oertling said he knows firsthand how important it is to have good educators in schools.

“She made an investment in me that no one had teaching wise to that point. So I did feel an obligation to give back and to help others where they may not have been helped before,” he said.

Due to poor grades in his first few years in high school, Oertling found himself at graduation with few prospects. He was not eligible for an academic scholarship and did not feel able to turn to his grandparents for financial help.

Instead he followed the footsteps of his older brother and signed up for a six-year contract with the U.S. Navy.

“Unfortunately I wasn’t able to earn a scholarship at that time, but fortunately the different pathway had led me to where I am now,” he said.

After training in radio communications, Oertling joined the crew of the of the U.S.S. Groton, a fast attack nuclear submarine. He quickly set about learning everything about the ship he possibly could.

“I advanced very quickly. I was sailor of the quarter a couple of times, sailor of the year one time,” he said.

 At 21 years old, Oertling began running the college education program on board the vessel and two years later, when his contract was completed, he felt like it was his turn to pursue a degree. He decided to leave the Navy and head back home. During his time in the military he had earned about a year’s worth of college credit, unfortunately it was not in his area of interest.

“I actually had probably 30 hours, none of it transferred over. It was toward an associate’s degree in electrical engineering,” he said. “I knew I didn’t want to be an electrician, I wanted to teach.”

In keeping with the success he had in his final years of high school as well as in the Navy, Oertling achieved a 3.9 grade point average in his time at Southeastern Louisiana University where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in science education. During his time at the school he also played rugby and went on to captain a team that went to the Deep South Championships.

Following graduation he applied for  teaching jobs in St. Charles and St. Tammany parishes. After interviews at Hahnville High School and Destrehan High School, he was offered a job at DHS.

“I got an interview with DHS. Chipper Simon was the principal. He was a former military guy too. He had an intro to BCA opening, which is a basic computer class position. I said I’m not certified in teaching computer classes, I can’t do it,” he said.  

After returning to his job selling electronics at Sears in Hammond, Oertling received a call, two weeks before school was scheduled to begin, from former Hahnville High School principal Barbara Fuselier saying they had an opening. At 27, Oertling took his first full-time job as an educator teaching physical science.

He was also asked to coach girls basketball, girls track and football.

“That first year I taught physical science and ended up coaching three sports. Looking back as a principal now there is no way I would have a new teacher coming in the first year do that because your classroom alone takes up so much time without coaching,” he said. “Regardless, I enjoyed the coaching because that is a different aspect of the environment.”

Oertling approached his work in the classroom like he had always approached jobs in the past.

 “I’ve always been a person to set goals and accomplish them. I’ve always wanted the organization and the people I am in to succeed at very high levels, whether it is in the Navy, whether it is in my classroom,” he said.

Within a few years Oertling had been appointed to several committees and was again enrolled at Southeastern Louisiana University, taking night courses to earn his master’s degree in education administration.

Only a semester away from graduation he was asked to step out of the classroom to become an administrative monitor at Hahnville. Two years later he was promoted to athletic director, and seven years into his tenure at Hahnville he fulfilled another goal, becoming assistant principal.

“When I first became a teacher I did say one of my goals was to become an assistant principal or principal and one day work in central office. Wherever my path may lead me, once I accomplish goals I am ready to take on the next challenge,” he said.

From there he took on additional duties as testing coordinator and then became the master scheduler for all courses being offered in the school. The added responsibilities he took on naturally helped him build the proper skill set that have helped him thrive as principal.

“I had been here at the time for 10 years and worked my way up and had all of these different experiences and then they asked me if I wanted to become principal,” Oertling said.

 In the meantime, while his career had been progressing, Oertling married a fellow educator, Kelli Oertling, currently the principal at Lakewood Elementary, and the couple had two children.

His family, as well as other educators who have been with him along the way, were with him at the ceremony when he was awarded principal of the year.

“We were all there with my family and it was very nice,” he said. “When they made the announcement I was ecstatic. I have two daughters, 8 and 5 years old, and they were jumping up and down. It’s an honor. It’s a unique honor.”

Now with his own family, Oertling said he sees his daughters in each student he has dealt with in his classes and now handles as an administrator.

“I have two children of my own, but I have 1,500 I have to care about too and they are just as important,” he said.

In taking a little time to look back on his award, Oertling is adamant that the recognition belongs to the school district as a whole, not just him individually or even Hahnville High School alone.

“It is not just one school or one person, it is really the uniqueness of our community and our educational system and foundation we have in place. I am happy to be leading the bus, but we have so many outstanding people and hard workers. People don’t understand the number of hours teachers put in at a high school,” he said.

In each year since Oertling has taken over leadership of the high school, the school has improved in multiple areas from going from a “B” to an “A” school for the first time, being named in one of the best schools in the country for college preparation and significantly decreasing the number of high school dropouts amongst other achievements. However, he said there is always room for improvement and despite the achievements he and his staff have already reached there are further goals that can be attained.

“This year’s motto is good to great. I admit we are good, but how can we be great? I want to be a great school. I want to be the top high school, not just in the district, but in the state. I think it is important for our kids to recognize that,” he said.

Part of that goal includes continuing his own education by enrolling once again at Southeastern, this time as a Ph.D. student

“The wealth of knowledge to me makes you a wealthier person and wiser person so you can help more people,” he said.

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