Boone's Jerry Gels says public education 'incredibly empowering'


Jerry Gels loves teaching.

The director of innovative programs for Boone County Schools believes in public education and its “ability to impact the world in the short and long term.”

“Student loan debt, the heroin crisis, the transitional economy, poverty and the variety of issues facing our local and larger world can be treated in part by what we do in public education,” the Cincinnati West Side native said. “It is incredibly empowering.”

Recently Gels was selected as the district-level Administrator of the Year by the Kentucky Association of School Administrators. 

Gels is credited with the idea to form the Boone County Early College and Boone County Design School. He was instrumental in forming partnerships with Northern Kentucky University, Thomas More College and Gateway Community and Technical College, allowing Boone County students to attend college for a half day with the potential of earning 24 college credits hours per year.

He also led the overhaul of the district’s alternative education program. Students work through alternative means to earn credits and focus on project-based learning and service learning initiatives.

Gels created the Home Builders program for students to help students enter the construction industry. He authored the innovation application that was used as the foundation to create the Ignite Institute, a new school opening in 2019. His work was instrumental in landing a $6.7 million Work Ready Skills Initiative grant to renovate a building given to the district by Toyota.

The 40-year-old has been at Boone County Schools for four years. He lives in Union with his wife, Jessica Gels, and their three redheads, Luci ,7, Caden, 4, and Jude, 1.

He recently sat down with the Enquirer to discuss why he’s in education.

Q: What got you into education?

A: The breaking point for me was when I was in graduate school at the University of Kentucky in urban ecology. Despite some major success with my research, and getting published, I loved the teaching aspect more.

Prior to that, I coached my brother’s basketball team when he was in grade school and I was in high school and the parents would all tell me they hoped I would go into teaching.

During my undergraduate, I used to tutor high school students as a job. One semester I decided to pursue another opportunity, but parents of two kids I was tutoring offered to double what they were paying me because their children’s grades had all dramatically increased. That’s where I learned I may be good at this. I felt guilty, so I didn’t take the pay raise, but I kept tutoring the kids the second semester.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your work?

A: The parents. No, really the parents. There is nothing more uplifting than when a parent thanks you for what you have done for their child and the difference that has made on their family. … As an educator, I’ve always sought to make my students feel cared about and visible. I like to put people in places to feel good about themselves and this profession gives me endless opportunities to do that.

Q: What does it mean to you to have been selected as the district-level Administrator of the Year?

A: It tells me what we are doing in Boone is important and resonating with others. On a personal level, It tells me I am in the right place. 

Q: What makes a good administrator?

A: In the past, I thought it was a vision, great communication, intelligence, or endurance. But all the best ones seem to be patient, forgiving, and trustworthy. They stick with people when things are tough, they are openly accountable when things go wrong, and they can bring calm to a bad situation.

The best recognize that it really isn’t the administrator that is making the difference, it is the teachers and they are more likely to be great if they trust the administrator. I am always working to be good in those areas. 

Q: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment? Why?

A: I have put together and participated in some pretty great teams, that is probably my greatest accomplishment as none of these others are mine alone. Having said that my greatest accomplishments as of yet are outside my administrative position.

In 2009 Over-the-Rhine was named the most dangerous community in American. Six months after that designation with parents, my sister, and two friends from high school I started the Queen City Underground Tour.

Our tours from our Over-the-Rhine location bring in about 34,000 people a year. When we started there were 29 boarded-up shops and numerous other vacant buildings, I am also really proud of the Newport Gangster Tour and the Newport Gangster Documentary.

When I taught, I created a program and escorted about 350 kids to Central America and the Caribbean. The students would take over schools and act as elementary school teachers for two weeks at a time. One year we raised enough money to supply every teacher at two schools with their own laptop.

Q: If you weren’t in education, what job would you have?

A: Stay-at-home dad.

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