LEXINGTON — When Kyle Hoehner told his colleagues he was leaving a successful teaching and coaching career in Kearney for a new position at Lexington High School, they were shocked, asking him, “What happened?” Now, 13 years later, it’s clear to them why he made such a change.
Hoehner has spent his entire life in Central Nebraska, being raised in Overton until he was two and then moving to Bertrand. He would go on to graduate from Bertrand Community School.
His parents were both teachers and administrators and it was from them Hoehner gained an interest in education. “I loved hearing my parents talking about education,” he said.
Hoehner would go on to college in McCook for a year, where he played basketball and then to Kearney State College where he received his double endorsements in both English and journalism.
Yet to begin with, Hoehner’s real passion was for coaching and he needed to teach in order to coach.
He began student teaching in Kearney, but said at the time, the formal education didn’t prepare one for being in front of 30 students.
Hoehner said on his first day student teaching, he had prepared an hour long lesson for a 40 minute class, more than enough for the entire period.
He blew through the material in 12 minutes, but it didn’t take long for Hoehner to gain a love of teaching and the classroom.
Ironically, one school which was interested in hiring Hoehner in the 1980s was Lexington High School, but he chose to stay in Kearney instead.
He dove into both teaching and coaching in Kearney. “Teaching is arguably one of the most important jobs anyone could have,” said Hoehner.
Hoehner said he loved working with students both in the classroom and on the gym floor, not only did he coach basketball and track but he ran the yearbook and the school newspaper.
He said Kearney’s yearbook program was already firmly established and he said he “just tried not to screw it up.” With their formal process in place and working with some of the top students in the district, the 26 yearbooks he oversaw saw great success.
What became apparent to Hoehner was, in order to be successful in education, students needed to have trust in the teacher, a genuine and strong connection. He said anything without this is just a façade.
“It is incumbent upon us to give them the best experience possible,” he said.
Hoehner also saw much success as a boys basketball coach in Kearney, nine times the team was a Class A state tournament qualifier, five times they were the tournament semi-finalist, eight times Class A District champions and 13 times in the Top 10 or a state qualifier.
In track he also coached 36 State meet qualifiers and 11 State Meet Class A medalists.
“Kearney was very good to me,” Hoehner said, “but life was almost too good.”
Hoehner began looking around for another career path after nudging from his wife and his mother, who is still teaching at the University of Nebraska at Kearney today.
He had been looking in Lexington, when one day his wife invited him to lunch.
He said the first words out of his wife were, “Now don’t be mad at me.” Hoehner said he began to wonder what kind of lunch this was going to turn into.
She continued, saying she had set up an interview for him in Lexington regarding the position of alethic director and assistant principal. Hoehner said he was both surprised and shocked, but went through with the interview.
Hoehner said going into the interview he felt there was a two percent chance he would take the position. After speaking with then Lexington High School principal Dave Gordon and superintendent Todd Chessmore, he was impressed with the school and felt the chances went up to 50/50.
After discussing the situation with his family, he took the position the next day.
Having been at Kearney High School for 26 years, Hoehner said no one in Kearney saw his departure coming.
His peers were stunned when they heard the news Hoehner was leaving for Lexington, they assumed something bad had happened for him to leave like this.
Lexington High School also had the reputation for being a tough school, but after the interview and walk around the school, Hoehner saw Gordon ran, “a tight ship.” He said Lexington was not what he expected it to be.
Hoehner started the position as athletic director and assistant principal at LHS in 2007. He said after that first day, “I never would have traded what happened, I have been very blessed.”
He found the position of athletic director was not only a full time job, but a full day job, he said he would often put in days which started at 7 a.m. and ended after 10 p.m.
When some of his peers asked him if he missed coaching, Hoehner told them, with his new job, he didn’t have time to think about it.
Hoehner said he was not sure how long his time would last in Lexington, but after only three years as the athletic director and assistant principal, he was asked if he would take on the position of principal, after Gordon’s departure.
He said he had looked at the work of the principal and wasn’t sure if he wanted that for himself, until he got advice from a mentor who told him, “You are the one who defines the role, you can determine what you want it to be.”
After talking the decision over with his family, he took the positon as Lexington High School’s principal in 2010.
From the day he took the position, he said he and his assistant principal, Audrey Downey, had been in lock step the entire time.
“She has been a rock solid partner,” Hoehner said.
Entering into his new position at the head of a high school which saw over 800 students through the doors every day, Hoehner and his team took stock of the strengths and weaknesses of the school.
Not long after he took the positon, guidelines from the federal government regarding graduation rate, attendance rate and state testing were going to be firmly enforced, which was an added pressure, Hoehner said.
The goal was to find ways to make increases in these areas.
Hoehner said the work would not have been possible without the support of the new superintendent John Hakonson and the people who sat on the Lexington school board.
“It’s so important to have their support,” he said, “I have so much respect for these people, they are huge supporters of education.”
Lexington has its issues, but he said these people have always provided their support, “I have always been surrounded by really good people.”
In order to reach the goals which were set, advisory classes, consisting of administration, teachers and students began meeting every day, pointing out strengths and weakness, the challenges which LHS faced 11 years ago.
Eventually the whole student body participated in discussions and the result of this was the Minuteman School Wide-Agreements a list of agreed upon terms both students and teachers would fulfill.
Three of the biggest things which were highlighted during these meetings were the ideas that teachers wouldn’t give up on students, students wouldn’t give up on themselves and students wouldn’t give up on each other, Hoehner said.
The major points of the agreement included, respect, responsibility, honesty and compassion, these posters still hang throughout LHS today.
“We want to build people of integrity,” Hoehner said.
Hoehner and his group also wanted to ensure they were doing data driven work, to prove what they are doing is making a difference.
Hoehner said this is how the change of culture was started, and also reached out to parents. Several events called, “Coffee with the Principal,” were held, and the first meeting saw around 100 parents attendeding both English and Spanish sessions.
Similar discussions were had, like those with the students, with discussions around what was being done right and the things which could be done better. What were decided upon were graduation rates and test scores needed to be improved.
Discussions were also held with the teachers to improve relationships in the building and to help increase communication.
After attending workshops, something Hoehner and the teachers wanted to focus on was the social, emotional and academic wellbeing of students in the classroom. Out of this the class Foundations of Leadership was created, a class students attend for a full period each day.
The goal of this class was to foster a bond, a connection between students and their class teachers, who would conduct grade checks every day, see how students were doing and help them to succeed.
The result of this was a rise in attendance rates, Hoehner said students were being held responsible but also supported. The dominion effect of the increased attendance was also an increase in the graduation rate.
At the conclusion of the 2018-2019 school year, Lexington’s daily attendance rate was 96 percent, two percent above the state average. The graduation rate was 93 percent, a full five percent above the state average, which was 88 percent.
Another program which was created under Hoehner was Destination Graduation, which splits the student body into different teams, and sees the group work together to see that as many members as possible graduate on time.
Hoehner wanted to reward the group which had the highest attendance rate and went to the Lexington Community Foundation, asking for funds to purchase laptops for each member of the winning team, an ask of around $15,000. After the meeting, not only was the request for the funds granted, but gift card purchases were approved as well, the LCF has consistently contributed $25,000 to the fund.
Destination Graduation is now on its 10th year as a program, Hoehner said. He has spoken nationally about the program, highlighting how it has contributed to the success of Lexington students, with other school districts around the country adopting similar programs.
All these changes and new programs implemented would not have been possible without all the stakeholders, students, teachers, parents and administration alike, involved in the process, said Hoehner.
Looking back at his time in Lexington, Hoehner said the feeling leaving LHS is quite similar to his feeling leaving KHS, that the school in a good place and will be in good hands. “The cupboard is far from bare,” Hohner said to describe the situation.
Hoehner said the importance wasn’t with an individual, but the system which was built. He said the difference comes down to being a leader or being a manager.
A system will likely fail without a manager in place, but a system fostered by a leader will continue after they are gone.
Speaking of the person who will fill the principal positon, “Audrey and I worked for 10 years together, Lexington High School is in a good place.”
He said it’s always important to be reflective, he said Lexington is becoming larger and more diverse year by year. Indeed, when Hohner started as principal, the total student enrollment in Lexington Public Schools was 2,915, in 2019 it was 3,104.
Hoehner said the perception of Lexington and the school system is shifting toward something much more akin to reality. He has heard from peers in school administration that Lexington, “is doing things right,” and those who know education, “know how good Lexington really is.”
When speaking abroad in the country or just down the road in Elwood, Hoehner said he has always made a point to speak bout Lexington, “it’s the best kept secret in the state.”
Evidence of this is apparent when people from outside the school system, state senators, representatives, other school administrators, college students visit. They all walk away saying, “this place is amazing,” Hoehner said.
“If people take the time to walk our halls and meet our students, they will find highly respectful kids in a safe environment,” said Hoehner, “Perception is not reality.”
When asked what is next for him after retirement, Hoehner said at the moment he is helping with the transition between him and Downey and is happy to come back and help, to do his part.
Hoehner said looking back, when he was first starting out, he didn’t aspire for this kind of position, but was guided along the way by his family and friends.
“I may not be done in education, I am not sure what is ahead, but I know God will point me in the right direction,” he said.
In closing, Hoehner said he has been blessed to work with amazing people, he cited Audrey Downey, his partner during his years at Lexington and all the others who helped him along the way, he said it is hard to name everyone, but included the whole staff at LHS.
“It was a tough job made easier,” Hoehner said of the support.
“Lexington is a wonderful place, while it always hasn’t been easy, it has been a labor of love,” Hoehner said, “Lexington has its challenges but I am amazed by how resilient our families and students are.”
He added he loves the teamwork of not only the school system, but the community itself. “Every day you feel like you made a difference in the lives of a student and their families.”
In his resignation letter Hoehner wrote, “I have thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated working alongside a team of the best administrators, teachers, counselors, office staff, custodians, cooks and certified staff in what might be one of the most difficult, yet truly fulfilling and vitally important jobs on earth. My admiration for each of them is boundless.”
“Without question, the one thing that has brought me the greatest joy in this building and district are the wonderfully creative, complex children who have made my work in education a genuinely significant, impactful and important labor of love.”