ONEKAMA — Outgoing superintendent of Onekama Consolidated Schools, Gina Hagen, said she is looking forward “with great anticipation” to what the next chapter of life has in store for her.
Hagen resigned at the January board of education meeting, and his last day as superintendent was January 20. He has spent nearly three decades working in education, including administrative positions such as principal and superintendent over the past 22 years at Onekama Consolidated Schools.
Though he chose to step down from his post, Hagan said he will do so with many fond memories of his time in the district.
“Onekama is a great school and I love the family atmosphere,” she said.
The fact that both of her sons graduated from the district is another fond memory as it brought her even closer to many students in the district.
“It was nice to be able to present both of my kids with diplomas and get to know their friends differently than you would just for your kids’ friendship,” she said. “It was nice to watch them all grow up and see them every day.”
In this file photo, Onekama Consolidated Schools superintendent Gina Hagen welcomes students for the first day of school on August 31, 2021.
Wearing different hats
Throughout her time at Onekama Consolidated Schools, Hagen wore a variety of hats that is common in small school districts.
“Beth McCarthy was the superintendent at the time I was hired as principal in sixth through twelfth grade,” Hagen said. “I was also the athletic director for a year and then became the K-12 principal through 2021 before taking on the role of principal/superintendent.”
While serving as principal/superintendent, he also briefly handled guidance counselor duties. Board members eventually filled the positions of principal and counselor, making her a full-time superintendent.
Hagen said an administrative position wasn’t even on her radar when she began her education journey. At the time she was focusing more on being an inner city school teacher.
“My student taught an inner-city school at Topeka High School (in Kansas) which I loved doing,” she said, but then added with a laugh, “‘My hopes were to continue doing that in the future, but not it happened. It doesn’t quite work.
This is because his young family moved to Manistee. Before he moved here, he didn’t realize how rural the area was and that there were no urban-type school districts.
“So what I did instead was work at Benzie Central Schools for two years and one of those years I started their alternative education program,” she said. “It was very challenging and I loved it, but being pregnant with my second child at the time I wanted to be closer to home in Manistee.
He then accepted a position at Manistee Catholic Central where he taught for a couple of years.
“Again I didn’t want any administrative position at the time and I really enjoyed teaching,” he said. “The principal then resigned at the end of the year and they asked me if I wanted a job.”
She said school officials knew she started the alternative education program in Benzie and felt it would give her the administrative background needed to do the job.
“At the last minute, the MCC student principal also left, so overnight I went from being a teacher to being a superintendent and that’s how I started working in administration,” he said. “After that I went to Onekama schools to become a principal.”
Changes in education
Hagen said the world of education has changed a lot since she started her career.
“Technology has changed education immensely, as it was technology when I came in, but not individual technology like today,” said Hagen. “I believe it has changed the face of education, but I truly believe that education is still doing something you love, putting students first and really just getting down and teaching the curriculum.”
Hagen said the curriculum may have changed some, but the goal of preparing kids for their next level of life has remained the same whether they’re in college, the workforce or the military.
“You need that desire to teach it and to pull the punches as the curriculum might change a little bit and the technology might change, but you basically put the students first to be the best they can be,” he said.
In March 2022, Onekama Consolidated Schools superintendent Gina Hagen (left) and school board members listen to parents express concern about the novel “Copper Sun” being taught at the school.
Kyle Kotecki/News Advocate
One of the first challenges she faced as superintendent was the COVID-19 pandemic, which started in early 2020. It was something that tested administrators across all school districts.
“The pandemic happened and I became superintendent that summer,” she said. “It was a challenge, but once again you overcome it. We had to teach a little differently because it was sometimes from home, but our kids still got an education and we focused on them.”
He said there will be after effects of the pandemic in education for some time, but the key was to keep moving forward trying to bring them up to their level.
Another major budgetary and financial challenge for the district was the transition from per-pupil state funding to being an off-formula school district. Funding now comes to the district from property values rather than based on student numbers.
“This is our third year without formula and you have to be extremely aware of how much money you have, but it’s not about how many babies you can take in the door,” she said. “Our classes are a little smaller, but we try to focus a lot on the teaching and the students. It’s nice to be off formula, but it’s not a cure because if taxes go down you could go back to formula.
During his 22 years at Onekama Consolidated Schools, Hagen had the opportunity to observe and learn from several excellent superintendents. You have worked under McCarthy, interim superintendent Lee Sandy, Kevin Hughes and interim superintendent Mark Parsons.
“They were all amazing superintendents and they all had their own style,” Hagen said. “So I learned a lot and enjoyed working with all of them.”
Hughes and Hagen worked together, both as principals before he became superintendent. Hughes praised Hagen’s dedication to the educational process.
“I really enjoyed working with Gina,” Hughes said. “She was a hard worker and a true team player who had a lot of compassion for the students.”
As for the future, Hagen said he’ll first exhale and plan his next course of action.
“I’ll get that because both of my kids live in Minneapolis right now and I’d love to see more of them,” she said. “I have a boat charter business and we charter in Florida in the winter, so I’d like to spend some time helping that out.”
He said there are opportunities out there, so he won’t rule out working again.
“I would like to focus on our families and our activities and just take one day at a time,” she said. “My parents also live in Manistee and my hope is to spend more time with them.”
Whatever course her life takes, Hagen said she plans to enjoy every day what lies ahead.