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New Hickman Mills Superintendent Says 'Underdog Mentality' Will Help District Overcome Enrollment, Financial Struggles

Yaw Obeng starts as superintendent in Hickman Mills on July 1. He describes himself as 'a little geeky' and says when his three sons were growing up, he often dragged them to visit school sites on vacation.
Courtesy of the Hickman Mills School District
Yaw Obeng starts as superintendent in Hickman Mills on July 1. He describes himself as 'a little geeky' and says when his three sons were growing up, he often dragged them to visit school sites on vacation.

Yaw Obeng comes to south Kansas City with school turnaround experience from Vermont. He also oversaw the construction of new schools in a district in his native Canada.

Hickman Mills has a new leader, Yaw Obeng, who’s leaving Burlington Public Schools in Vermont after five years as superintendent there.

The outgoing Hickman Mills superintendent, Yolanda Cargile, a well-liked Ruskin High School graduate, is moving to the neighboring Center School District. Obeng inherits a provisionally accredited district with declining enrollment. The district is also struggling with falling revenues, largely a byproduct of tax abatements for Cerner’s south Kansas City development. The problem has gotten so bad, the board voted to close two schools last year.

But Obeng said he’s up for a challenge.

“One of the things I always look for is somewhere I believe my experiences and skills can actually make a difference,” Obeng said. “When I went into Burlington, the state was going to take over the district. There were some financial issues, there were some racial tensions within the district. And there was an achievement gap.”

Obeng, who is originally from Toronto, oversaw a period of rapid expansion in one of the Canadian city’s suburban school districts before taking the top job in Burlington. He said he expects that experience to guide him as he takes the top job in Hickman Mills.

What got you interested in Hickman Mills? What was it about the district that made you think it would be a good fit?

I know the teachers and the staff are excited to move in the direction of full accreditation. I’ve always been someone who likes to be on the ground floor of something. I think that Hickman Mills is a place where I can start from the beginning, work with the rest of the team and get the success we want to see.

Kansas City’s education system is very fragmented. There are 14 districts within city limits, and South Kansas City districts like Hickman Mills and Center rarely get the attention the Kansas City Public Schools do. How do you make sure the students in your district aren’t forgotten?

We might have sort of an underdog mentality in terms of always having to punch up, trying to get respect. ... We need to go out and tell stories about the things we’re doing. That’s the only way to get the kind of recognition the district has always wanted. This is an opportunity to look at our brand, at our messaging, at where we want to go in the future.

I’m guessing you’ve never started a new position during a global pandemic before. How do you introduce yourself to the community when no one even knows what school will look like in August?

These are unprecedented times, and you’re right, it’s a challenge. My mode of operation is to get out in the community and talk to people where they’re at, whether it’s a barber shop, restaurant, gymnasium or church. But that’s not going to be possible ... until the pandemic dies down. We’re going to have to learn to communicate better virtually. In my current district, we’ve had really good success with YouTube events, livestream, things like that. In some cases, it’s better than the norm because now you can have those chat questions that everyone has a chance to ask.

The outgoing superintendent, Dr. Cargile, grew up in Hickman Mills. Do you anticipate continuing to work with her? I know she’s expressed interest in continuing some of the collaborations she built between Center, Hickman Mills and Grandview, the South Kansas City districts.

I think what the previous superintendent did was lay a great foundation for me to come in. I’ve got fresh eyes, and I’m interested in working with everyone. I hope I can connect with my partners, my colleagues in the surrounding districts. I want to learn from them the context in Kansas City and in Missouri. I also think I have some things to share. I’ve had some great international experiences. And I look forward to carving out my own identity with our community. People will judge themselves who I am by how I’m responding to their needs.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson cut $131 million from K-12 education, and state education officials are saying to expect another round of cuts next month. With so much financial uncertainty right now, what needs to be done to shore up Hickman Mills’ budget?

I don’t think there’s ever a situation where you’re totally satisfied with the funds that you have, even when you have a fund balance you can carry forward. But I would say while we need to practice good fiduciary responsibility, ensuring we have resources and reserves for situations just like this, we need to shift our dollars toward direct student supports. This pandemic has really magnified the inequities for some students.

Speaking of inequities, George Floyd’s murder in Minnesota has started a national conversation about racial injustice. I know a lot of districts were having conversations before about educational equity and what school looks like for children of color, but this feels like a tipping point for specifically anti-racist curriculum. As a newcomer to the district, how do you have that conversation?

The Floyd situation has really put a focus on people to examine their own biases and see how policies and practices are met, especially in education. I’m hoping (city and state) leaders are open to having a frank conversation. I know I’ll be a strong advocate for our students and for our district to raise that voice and identify where the inequities are and look for support. ... For those of us that experienced it through education systems, through society, this is nothing new. It just brings it to light. And I’m hoping that people can actually see it.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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