Ryan Snoddy and Kristen Bilkey go way back.
Far enough back, actually, that Snoddy coached Bilkey in summer swim lessons as a youth. After that, he was her assistant principal when she roamed the halls of Northwestern as a high school student.
The long lasting relationship they’ve built over the years since is just one of the reasons the superintendent transition at Northwesternf this month has been a smooth one as Snoddy readies to retire after 21 years in the role and Bilkey steps in to fill his shoes.
“I tell students all the time just how important it is to have respectful interactions with people and do the right thing, because you never know when maybe that person is going to be part of your life in the future,” Bilkey said. “As a student at Northwestern, my parents raised me to do the right thing, and say the right thing, and be responsible and work hard, and all those things Mr. Snoddy saw me have as a student, eventually it benefited me in my life now.”
Bilkey, who has served as Northwestern High School principal for the past five years, officially took over as superintendent on Jan. 1 while Snoddy, who announced his retirement on the first day of school last fall, will officially leave on Jan. 31.
That overlapping period has made for an even smoother transition as Bilkey deals with what she called an overload of information as she takes the reins.
Snoddy has no doubt the school system is in good hands.
“She has heard me say this repeatedly. She will be great,” Snoddy said. “Your goal is always to hire better. That means hire the best person you can, and hire to make the corporation better. And I think the board has done that in hiring Kristen.
“I have no doubt in my mind that she will carry Northwestern to a better place than it is now.”
Equally important in this changing of the guard has been the devotion and love apparent in both educators to what Bilkey calls the “Northwestern way.”
They both bleed purple – Snoddy is a common face in the crowd at a variety of school productions and sporting events and Bilkey won’t hesitate to grab a flag and jump in as a line judge at volleyball matches – but the way they got to that point was certainly different.
Snoddy came from central Michigan, growing up in Holt and graduating from Michigan State. When he landed at Northwestern in 1979, he said he had some background on Indiana and knew a little bit about what he was getting into ahead of time.
“But as I drove through the cornfields I thought, ‘wow,’” Snoddy said. “Within a month though I realized the care the community had for public education. And that’s a solid point for anybody who is passionate about education, knowing you have a community that supports, values and expects good work from teachers makes you proud and makes you want to serve them the best you can.”
Bilkey was born and raised in Kokomo. Her great-grandparents were both teachers in Northwesten’s Clay building. Her father was a Northwestern grad. She and her two sisters followed. Her daughter Kate graduated from the school last year and her son Jack is a junior.
Bilkey spent 16 years at Kokomo School Corporation in various positions, including as a special education teacher, elementary teacher, assistant elementary school principal and assistant middle school principal before returning to her alma mater, where she served as assistant principal at the high school prior to becoming principal.
“Coming back to Northwestern was a little different because I’m passionate not just about education but also about Northwestern,” Bilkey said. “It’s just really that mindset on work ethic and rigor and responsibility. It is different because it’s such a home for me. It’s where I grew up. I have memories all the way through the elementary, middle school and high school experience and then having my children go through it does bring a different level of responsibility to it where I feel even more personally responsible for the outcomes of the district and not just professionally.”
Bilkey said her vision going forward is to maintain and grow a rigorous teaching and learning environment while supporting the emotional and academic and social needs of students. She’ll face challenges in finding ways to continue Northwestern’s strong standards, where graduation rates have been highest in the county each of the past two years.
“I feel like I have experience at the high school level where we were maintaining excellence but we always found ways to grow,” Bilkey said. “We always found ways to get better. I think we have a fantastic corporation, fantastic people, but we can all get better.”
She said she’ll stick to her concept of always keeping students first, noting that every decision she made as building principal was based on that ideal.
“The staff knew that first and foremost I was going to look at what’s best for kids. I think that really helps in the decision making just to really have those steadfast rules in mind as to how does this effect students and is it also best for kids.”
Bilkey noted there was plenty of knowledge to be gleaned from Snoddy’s 21 years in the role, with possibly the greatest asset she has learned from him coming from his demeanor.
“He’s always level,” Bilkey said. “One of the best pieces of advice I was given was: respond, don’t react. And I think that, to a ‘T’, is Ryan. He doesn’t overreact in any way, shape or form. His responses are always just that, taking time to think through the situation and responding in the best way.
“He never made anyone feel like his job was overwhelming and I’m not quite sure yet how he did that. I’ll work on that. I thought I knew him really well, but I had no idea all the pieces he was dealing with on a daily basis because he didn’t show it. And I don’t want to either.”
Snoddy, who dealt with plenty of challenges in his tenure, including in 2001 when facility and class-size issues left the corporation working with the board on the possibility of closing Howard Elementary, said his calm demeanor was something that didn't happen overnight.
“It takes a while. I think one thing that is important, especially as you keep kids’ needs first, in my experience students always perform best when everything is nice and calm.
“Kids have enough hitting them in today’s world that school needs to be a safe place where they know what’s going to happen when they get there, they know they are going to get a good education in the classroom, and they know they are going to be able to get to and from school safely. That’s even more important now with all the environmental problems we have with kids coming to school and doing things they shouldn’t do.”
Snoddy started at Northwestern as a physical education teacher, quickly rising through the ranks and serving for a time as principal at the high school as well as the middle school. In November, 2017 he was recognized by the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents for 20 years as a superintendent.
“I’m going to miss the relationships, with students and staff, bus drivers, custodians,” Snoddy said. “I really feel like the strength that we have in our school are the people. That includes the students and their families. But I’m not going away.”
Which is great news to Bilkey, who joked she would be blowing up his phone once he departs later this week.
“Really, truly, without Mr. Snoddy, I think about that all the time, if he weren’t here, how much more difficult a transition this would be. Having him here throughout this time, I tell him I’m going to call him all the time, that once he’s not physically in the building with me he’s going to see my number pop up all the time.”
And that’s just fine for Snoddy, who plans to continue his commitment to the school he loves even after he hears the final bell ring on a long career Thursday.
“If she needs anything,” Snoddy said with a smile, “she’s got my number.”