Joe Kitchens

Fast Forward Into the Future by Jay P. Goldman

Joe Kitchens, the superintendent of the Western Heights Public Schools in Oklahoma City, Okla., wants us all to believe he's a country bumpkin, a regular guy who barely manages to send and receive his e-mail and struggles to make his desktop computer behave the way he wants.

Or as a veteran member of the Western Heights school board puts it: "When you meet with him, your first impression is 'I just met with a good ol' boy from southeastern Oklahoma.'"

But Jann Davenport, president of the school board, says that would be a false view of a multifaceted, highly cerebral individual who is on the cusp of positioning a public school system on the frontier of teaching and learning. "The more you visit with him, the more you realize his mind never rests. He's thinking all the time," she says.

Kitchens has been superintendent of the 3,300-student district since 1995 after 3½ years as the assistant. He became a superintendent at age 24 in the tiny school community of Indianola, Okla., where he piloted the first financial accounting system for a desktop computer in the state and experimented with curriculum management on a now-relic Commodore 64 and TRS 80. He also convinced the local cable TV company to wire the district's three schools with two-way connections.

Fast forward to today-real fast actually-and you'll find Kitchens facilitating a breakthrough system known as the Virtual Internet School in Oklahoma Network. VISION soon will deliver an on-line curriculum, replete with high-quality video streaming along with text and graphics, to schools across the state. Teachers will be able to communicate with students in other locations using videoconferences and on-line conversations.

The statewide project is an outgrowth of a now 4-year-old district initiative in Western Heights known as JetNet-a highly advanced telecommunications network that Kitchens considers his trademark accomplishment. Backed by a series of five successful bond issuances totaling more than $10 million, as well as the federal e-rate program, he has equipped all 230 classrooms with one computer for every two students. By this fall, every student in 3rd grade and up will have a personal e-mail account.

Bill Gates devoted four pages of gushing praise to the district's connected learning community in his latest book, Business @ the Speed of Thought.

What's most remarkable is the way Kitchens has brought together the major players in the field—Intel, Microsoft, Cisco, Dell and others—to address the particular teaching and learning needs of a school system that largely serves poor children. (About 70 percent qualify for the federal lunch program.)

John Pompay, a Dallas-based business development manager for Intel, describes Kitchens as "relentless" in the way he pushes technology firms to tailor new applications. "Joe feels profoundly that the timeliness of data has been lacking, that we need to more quickly give feedback to participants about what's working and what isn't," he says.

While Pompay insists the superintendent deserves the lion's share of credit for gaining legislative approval of the VISION project, he believes "political considerations" have tended to ascribe the credit to others.

Though casting himself as a "moderate (ability) computer user" who relies on the expertise of those around him, Kitchens has been asked to join a number of computer-related advisory boards over the years. He seems to move comfortably through the corporate circles, saying of his high-tech colleagues, "I'm not sure I can speak their language, but I can understand what they're talking about."

He also reads widely outside the field of education, counting Only the Paranoid Survive by Intel Corp. Chairman Andrew Grove as an especially compelling message with relevance for public school leadership. Grove, he says, discusses "that point in time where all of the previously known dynamics governing the operation and functionality of an entity become fundamentally at risk because of threatened change not previously considered."

Kitchens concedes he's had opportunities to leave the suburban confines of Oklahoma City for better-paying work in the private sector, but he's not lending an ear for now. "I'm lucky to be in this community in this situation. It's very progressive."

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail:

Joe Kitchens

superintendent, Western Heights School District, Oklahoma City, Okla.

superintendent, Indianola, Okla.


Greatest Influence on Career:
A book by Jack Frymier, The Annehurst Curriculum Classification System, gave me real insight on how teaching is inexorably linked to empowering teachers to identify the assets of learners and matching the needs of those learners with the most appropriate content available.

Best Professional Day:
Being notified by the Smithsonian Institution that Western Heights was selected as a 1998 Computerworld Smithsonian Laureate, the first K-12 school in Oklahoma to receive that award.

Books at Bedside:
Growing Up Digital by Don Tapscott, Only the Paranoid Survive by Andrew Grove, Business @ the Speed of Thought by Bill Gates and The Inventor's Dilemma by Clayton M. Christensen

Biggest Blooper:
The day I arbitrarily replaced teaching equipment in a 30-year teacher's classroom without the knowledge of the teacher.

A Reason Why I'm an AASA Member:
To have an impact in the rapid technological change sweeping education, all administrators must become active members in AASA. The more numerous and active the membership becomes, the easier it will be to protect the essential tenets of American education.