Belton ISD Superintendent Susan Kincannon poses for a portrait at Lake Belton High School in Temple.

BELTON — Susan Kincannon can easily pinpoint the moment she wanted to become an educator.

It was in the fourth grade, and her teacher was Francis Killingsworth. Kincannon described her as an amazing teacher who had the ability to connect and love her students. Killingsworth helped Kincannon figure out that she was good at learning.

But getting into Killingsworth’s class was not easy.

“It’s a hard story to tell,” Kincannon said, taking a moment to collect herself. “I have five sisters. We were removed from our home when I was in the third grade going into the fourth grade. We were all split up. I ended up in foster care for a while.”

Kincannon’s uncles learned about her and her sisters’ situation, and knew their nieces needed a home.

“They came to Alabama and picked all six of us up. The oldest three came to Texas and the youngest three went to New Mexico,” Kincannon said. “That’s how I got to this area.”

That’s how she ended up in Killingsworth’s fourth-grade class.

“She made me feel special. I loved every minute of being in her classroom,” Kincannon said as her voice filled with emotion. “I loved school. It was a safe place, and that’s my why — that’s why I decided to become a teacher: To do exactly what Mrs. Killingsworth did for me.”

Kincannon’s nearly three-decade-long career in education has been about students. They fueled her rise from teacher to principal in the Temple Independent School District and her eventual accession to the Belton schools superintendent.

Now — after 20 years in Belton ISD, eight as its top administrator — Kincannon, 51, will become the next superintendent of Waco Independent School District.

The Waco school board, in a 5-2 vote, finalized Kincannon’s contract Thursday evening. Her salary will be $252,500. Her first day in Waco is Thursday.

“I’m ready for a change. This will be my 30th year in education. I’ve been here for almost two decades,” Kincannon said. “I’m ready to take on a new challenge, grow some more and continue to learn myself as a leader.”

Impacting students

Nearly a month has passed since Kincannon was named, in a 5-1 decision, the sole finalist for Waco ISD superintendent. Since then, she has thought about her time in Belton.

“As I reflect on my time in Belton ISD, I’ve been thinking a lot about culture,” Kincannon said. “What I have tried to do as a superintendent is to stay focused on the kids — building culture has become more and more important to me as I’ve gained more experience and truly internalized what’s most important to the work. It is about the kids and the relationships that we build and the higher purpose of education and letting all of the kids have all the opportunities that we want them to have.”

Kincannon’s focus on students developed over her 30 years in education. She started as a teacher at Scott Elementary in Temple before moving to Travis Middle School, now Travis Science Academy.

“I had a lot of impact on students there,” Kincannon said of her time teaching math, science and English at Travis.

Kincannon eventually decided she wanted to become an administrator. She started her administration career as the assistant principal at Travis Middle School and then became the leader of Cater Elementary.

There, Kincannon said, she had tougher students.

“I learned about kids and systems and how to manage behavior,” Kincannon said of her time as the Cater Elementary principal. “All of my experiences — from having been a classroom teacher to having been an assistant principal at the middle school level and being a principal of a school with a hard program like that — have definitely given me some insight into the experiences of our teachers and some insight into how to help select programs to improve (students).”

‘I fell in love’

Kincannon joined Belton Independent School District in the summer of 2000. Her first job there was as the principal of the intermediate school.

Initially, Kincannon was hesitant about taking a job outside of Temple ISD — the only district she had known up to that point. On top of that, her daughter, Kale, had just been born in November.

“Wayne Carpenter, who was here at the time (as the human resources assistant superintendent), called me back and I said, ‘Well, I’m at home and I have my baby.’ He said, ‘Bring her with you. Let’s take a tour of the school,’” Kicannon said. “I carried Kale with me to the intermediate school and we toured the school. I fell in love with it. The rest is history.”

‘Taking care of kids’

The Belton school board selected Kincannon as superintendent in May 2010. She succeeded Vivian Baker, who served as the district’s top administrator for nine years until her retirement in 2010.

There are parallels between Baker and Kincannon. Both presided over a growth period. Belton ISD grew to 9,000 students under Baker’s leadership. Enrollment grew by 3,000 students to nearly 12,000 since Kincannon became superintendent in 2011.

Baker left the district with two schools under construction — South Belton Middle School and Tarver Elementary.

Kincannon is leaving with the recently opened Charter Oak Elementary and the continued construction of Lake Belton High School — the district’s second comprehensive high school.

Randy Pittenger, now the president of the Belton Area Chamber of Commerce, was the school board president when trustees hired Kincannon. He said she was the right person in the right place at the right time for the job.

“She’s been such a great leader for our school district, and has helped us as a community grow and the school district grow — both in size, obviously, and in addressing the challenges we face of growth and of opportunities for our kids,” Pittenger said. “She has done some tremendous work here.”

While Kincannon is proud of her work managing Belton ISD’s growth, she wants her legacy to be more than that.

“I hope my legacy here in Belton is about taking care of kids, and pulling together a team to work towards a common purpose. You see that in this room,” Kincannon said, sitting in a conference room decorated with the district’s 2019-20 theme of “Design. Create. Build.” “The last few years I have been able to refine my approach to pulling together the team and helping the team work together for a purpose.”

Pittenger is sad to see Kincannon leave Belton ISD, but he said she will provide Waco ISD with the leader they need going forward.

“We had great confidence in her to do great things for our kids — and she has,” Pittenger said. “I appreciate the Waco ISD board’s desire to get the very best, and they did. I believe she is without question the best superintendent they could have chosen because she is the superintendent that we have.”

Lessons learned

Jill Ross is the principal of Lake Belton High School after serving as the Belton High principal. She said she teared up a little bit when she learned Kincannon would be headed to Waco.

“I am lucky to have had the opportunity to work for Dr. Kincannon,” Ross said. “She has given me many opportunities to serve students in Belton ISD. She will be missed in the district, and I will miss her as a mentor.”

Ross said she has learned two specific things from Kincannon.

“One, planning is the way to move forward. She focused on the development of a plan and the implementation of it,” Ross said. “Two, keep focusing on teachers and students. Though we all have many different things to manage and it is all important, our students and teachers must know that they are heard. Their opinions matter.”

Ross will use both of these lessons as she spends this school year preparing for the fall 2020 opening of Lake Belton High.

‘I want kids to be successful’

Belton and Waco ISDs have similar enrollments. Belton ISD has nearly 12,000 students while Waco ISD has about 15,000 students, according to the Texas Education Agency.

Their demographics, though, are stark. More than 52 percent of Belton ISD students are white while 8.8 percent are white in Waco ISD, where most students are black or Hispanic. While 45.5 percent of Belton students are economically disadvantaged, that number is 77 percent in Waco.

Kincannon knows the differences between the districts.

“I’m attracted to the challenge. I love doing this work. If you know me, you know that I like a good challenge. I’m attracted to the challenge of helping them to continue to get better themselves,” Kincannon said. “I feel like I can make a difference.”

She recognizes the concerns from two Waco school board members who dissented against hiring her. Norman Manning and Stephanie Korteweg expressed concern over Kincannon’s lack of experience with a diverse student population, the Waco Tribune-Herald reported.

“Her district looks very different than our district,” Korteweg told the paper. “My hesitancy comes with her lacking a proven record within a district similar to Waco.”

Kincannon said she wants the same as she did in Belton ISD — a culture focused on making students the best people they can become.

“I want kids to be successful. I want to create a culture of respect,” Kincannon said. “We have worked diligently the last three years to implement a No Place for Hate program and a culture that values each and every student. I want that.”

Like in Belton ISD, Kincannon will listen to everyone involved with Waco ISD.

“I want to hear what the schools need, what the teachers need, what the parents want, what the community wants and help them design it,” Kincannon said. “I want to implement the same level of care that I have for this school district and just to continue to do that kind of work for Waco ISD.”