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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

New Leadership at Highlands Middle School: Michael Howton and Lee Gatens

Michael Howton and Lee Gatens. FTM file.

By Lisa Birkley 

There have been so many changes in our school district that it is hard to keep track who went where and who is new.  With Mr. Mark Goetz, retiring as Principal of Highlands Middle School, and Dr. Dawn Laber moving to Ruth Moyer Elementary School to be its new Principal, the middle school needed to find new leadership. The Site Based Council was charged with the job of finding the new principal.  After many weeks, it named Mr. Michael Howton as the new Principal, and Mrs. Lee Gatens as the new Assistant Principal.

Mr. Kevin Nieporte, Site Based Decision Making Council (SBDM), served as president of the hiring committee to find the new principal for the middle school.  He said, “Mr. Howton had the knowledge to win the interview hands down.  His answers were clear and concise, and he clearly had the experience we were looking for.  Following the interview I think everyone on the Council knew we had found our principal.

“They are just precious.  I feel very blessed to work with Mr. Howton and Mrs. Gatens,” said Mrs. Shelley Kappesser, Mr. Howton’s secretary.  Mrs. Kappesser has been working with them both over the summer.  On July 1st both arrived with boxes in hand to begin their transition.

Even though change is never easy, Mr. Howton comes to Fort Thomas with a great deal of experience and expertise.
He is originally from Webster County, Kentucky.  After graduating from Northern Kentucky University he started his educational teaching social studies and later assistant principal at Campbell County High School.  He then went to Batavia High School as the assistant principal and 7th and 8th grade principal, and then onto New Miami High School as its Principal. Last year he was hired as the Principal of Mt. Healthy Junior/High School, and now he is ready to lead Highlands Middle School.

Although Mr. Howton has seen many different school systems, Mrs. Gatens has a shorter list of experience, but still very impressive.  She is originally from Connecticut and went to Kent State University in Ohio.  While there she joined ROTC and from that experience she went on active duty for 4 1/2 years.  She was stationed in Korea and Germany and deployed to Kosovo and Iraq.  Her first teaching job was at Beechwood High School teaching math.  She was there for six years, and now she has joined the Fort Thomas District.

Both of these educators have one person in common, Mrs. Ginger Webb, Assistant Superintendent.  Mrs. Webb said, “When I first met Michael, he was a young teacher at Campbell County High School.  His leadership skills were evident, and when we had an opening for an assistant principal, we hired him for that role.  Michael is smart and innovative and very student-centered.  He also has a hilariously dry sense of humor.  One thing that impressed me when he was an assistant principal was that he wanted to take on extra projects to help the school.  For example, he designed an entire ‘CATS Madness’ contest to help motivate students to do their best on state testing.  The students and teachers really enjoyed it, and our scores did go up!  I knew that very shortly he would be leading his own building.”

Mrs. Webb also worked with Mrs. Gatens.  Mrs. Webb said, “I hired Lee for her very first teaching job.  She is smart, enthusiastic, and completely student-centered. She lights up a room with positive energy, yet she is also very tough.  Like Michael, she is a natural leader. Her leadership skills were honed during her time in the military.”

With all this experience, one of the first characteristics of the middle school they will find is the teaming concept.  Currently, the middle school students have four core classes: English, math, social studies and science.  They have two additional classes that are called encores and the students get a choice in how they fill those classes. Each grade level has two teams. Both Mr. Howton and Mrs. Gatens agree that the teaming concept works well with middle school students.  Mr. Howton said that he liked the idea of having team leaders that can communicate and collaberate with him about any issues on each team.

He said, “I want input from the teachers.  I want them to know that they will have an opportunity to be heard.”  However, for the third year, the middle has seen a surge in student population, and it doesn’t look like it will be going down any time soon.  The classes are anywhere from 26 to 32 students in a class, and those numbers may rise even more before school starts.  Mr. Howton said that he is very aware of the class size concerns and wants to try work with teachers and use some creative ways to reduce those numbers in the future.

Obviously, the digital conversion is also a major priority for the middle school.  With one year of the Macbook Airs under their belt, teachers, students and administrators are still finding new opportunities as well as a few problems.  Mr. Howton and Mrs. Gatens were both PC users in their previous lives.  Mrs. Gatens said, “I am really getting used to using the Macs.  Everyday I learn just a little bit more about the computer and the things it will do.”  Mr. Howton said, “The Macs open up a new world of teaching and learning.  I feel it is important to explore and more innovative with the possibilities of what this learning tool offers.  I want teachers to feel empowered to be innovators and creators of instruction.  My hope is that same sense of creativity and innovation carries over to our students as they become engaged and active thinkers.  It’s exciting and one of the many reasons I came to Fort Thomas.”

Recently, Mr. Howton and Mrs. Gatens attended the annual administrators retreat.  All the leaders in the district go away together and discuss how they can do things even better than the year before.  Mrs. Gatens said, “I really felt welcomed and supported.  Everyone was so helpful, and I know I can depend on everyone for help and advice.”  Mr. Howton shared that sentiment and said, “I did enjoy the retreat.  I got such a great sense of team with support.  I got to know everyone.  I also wanted to thank Mr. Goetz and Dr. Laber.  They left us with so many resources to help with the transition.”

Changes are never easy, but Mr. Howton and Mrs. Gatens have great attitudes about their new positions.  Mrs. Webb said, “I have no doubt that Highlands Middle School is in excellent hands with these two.  Mr. Howton and Ms. Gatens will pick up right where Mr. Goetz and Dr. Laber left off and continue to move the school forward.  It’s going to be another great year!”

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