New superintendent eyes enhanced leadership, technology programs

Dr. Ken Oertling learned the importance of teamwork at the highest level a long time ago. It’s a core principle that he believes will serve him well as he officially succeeds the retiring Felecia Gomez-Walker as St. Charles Parish Schools superintendent on Monday.

Takes over helm of district July 1, succeeds Gomez-Walker

Dr. Ken Oertling learned the importance of teamwork at the highest level a long time ago. It’s a core principle that he believes will serve him well as he officially succeeds the retiring Felecia Gomez-Walker as St. Charles Parish Schools superintendent on Monday.

Oertling has spent much of his time over the past several weeks meeting with school district administrators and personnel at each school site, part of an 100 day plan to gather information and get on the same page with each person’s goals and outlook.

“The people have always and will always be the heart of our organization,” Oertling said. “Positive relationships and mutual trust is the foundation of our system … I’ve met with teachers, students, parents and administration of each school during the transition period so we have collective vision of where we’re moving into and how we will prepare students for the future.”

That idea of everyone pulling in one united direction is at the heart of his belief system – at one time, it meant the difference between life and death.

Oertling recalled his early days with the U.S. Navy – and the nickname his 19-year-old self and others incoming wore for a bit.

“They called you a NUB – a non-useful body, when you started out,” he said. “They ride you, would make you wear a funny hat … but until you became qualified, you weren’t a contributing member.”

Becoming qualified entailed learning how every system of the submarine worked. That way, if something went wrong, each person knew how to address it.

He didn’t grasp its big picture importance until one day, during a sea transit, the sub – which had just been in service – dove down and there was a loud explosion. Everyone reported to their response station, and all of that knowledge accumulated served the ultimate purpose: determining survival, not just for one’s self, but others.

“It just showed me the value of working together as a team,” Oertling said. “I’ve had so many people helping me over the years and it made me look to become a surrogate leader in my different experiences.”

Those experiences include nearly 20 years with the St. Charles Parish School District, since Oertling joined the school district initially as a teacher and coach at Hahnville High School in 2001.

“It’s starting to sink in,” he said. “Obviously, with a new position, I don’t know what I don’t know, what I haven’t experienced. I do know with this job, you reach every level … it’s been a whirlwind, a very busy few months.”

While he learns the ins and outs of leading the district, he hopes many others in the district will share a similar experience in learning to lead. Oertling is especially passionate the subject leadership, and is eager to accelerate the development of leadership skills at every level of the district, for administrators, teachers and students alike.

He’d like to focus on increasing opportunities at the elementary, middle and high school levels and further enhance the district’s current Aspiring Leader and Teacher Leader programs. Likewise, Oertling seeks to expand leadership programs for teachers and for administrators, including an aspiring principal program. Oertling said it will be his responsibility to cultivate and maintain continuous professional growth for district employees. But the chance to spark growth of those skills in students, he believes, will also have extensive benefits both now and in the future.

“Leadership is so important to driving future initiatives. For us to be innovative and progressive, we need more and more leaders throughout our organization,” he said. “(Leadership) isn’t about a position. It’s about the ability to connect with and influence others in a positive way, and looking at things in a positive manner.

“If we can build those skills within our students and they cultivate them throughout their schools and in their lives, I think it’ll have such a positive impact on not just our school system, but in our community, our state and our country. I feel very strongly about that.

Though he steps into the leadership role of what’s been a highly-regarded, “A” rated district, staying ahead of the curve is a must if St. Charles is to stay that way, he said.

“The needs of students five years ago aren’t the same needs of students today,” Oertling said.

“It’s been a whirlwind, a very busy few months.” — Ken Oertling

The world is changing, as is its workforce. Automated machines and technology have replaced many manual label and data management jobs, which Oertling said yields a two-pronged responsibility for the district: to prepare students with the technological skills to needed to fill those jobs, but also to teach the skills machines cannot mimic or replace: collaboration, design thinking, creativity, problem-solving, active listening and emotional intelligence. He would like to see continued development of the district’s technology education plan to that end, as well as a strategic plan for STEAM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education.

“People often say we’re preparing students to be college or career ready, but really the term needs to be future ready,” Oertling said. “The world is changing at such a fast rate, and we need to be on top of it.”

He’s ready to take on those challenges. Gomez-Walker, he said, has made his transition easier in many ways for him, and he also credited her with setting an example he’s learned so much from.

“There’s a difference between listening to people and hearing them, and she helped me slow down and really listen,” he said. “If you don’t have that empathy for what another person is experiencing, it’s very difficult to serve them well. It’s something I hope to emulate.”

Dr. Ken Oertling

  • Des Allemands resident been part of St. Charles public school system for the past 18 years.
  • Named Louisiana Principal of the Year in 2015 for his work with Hahnville High School.
  • U.S. Navy veteran
  • Takes over superintendent role officially July 1. Expanded opportunities and programs regarding technology and leadership skills are among a number of goals he’s focused on.

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