Service, character, and leadership are the driving force behind Freeport Superintendent of Schools Kishore Kuncham's motivation to continually improve the community.
In recognition of Kuncham’s dedication to making Freeport Public Schools the best district it can possibly be while simultaneously serving the community, the Herald is proud to name him its Person of the Year.
Kuncham has worked in the district for nearly 30 years, and became the first Indian-American school superintendent in the history of New York state. In addition to his long tenure in the district, he is also involved in a several organizations and critical efforts to develop a better community.
Kuncham's journey began in 1989, when he came to Bellmore with his wife after leaving his home country of India to seek higher education in the form of a master’s in business administration. He had been successful in the service industry in India, but upon moving to a new country, he discovered many of his previous successes meant little in this new environment.
“It wasn't easy,” Kuncham said. “We're talking 33-plus years ago. At that time there weren’t a lot of people coming here from other countries. Everything was about local experience and local education. I was in an executive position for several years already in India, and none of them mattered much during that time. So the journey was a bit hard in that sense.”
Kuncham became a banker, but after three years at Dowling College in Oakdale, where he obtained an MBA, he became interested in the field of public education through his involvement in the Nassau Board of Cooperative Educational Services program. Nassau BOCES is a regional educational service agency that provides support and resources to school districts in Nassau County.
Kuncham completed his second master's in educational management in 1994, went on to earn a doctorate in education from Seton Hall University in New Jersey. He became the Freeport district's superintendent in 2009.
He had arrived in the district at a pivotal time. It was operating with a budget deficit, school ratings were dropping, residents' faith in the district was low, and graduation rates were poor.
“I had always been heavily involved in the education side, so we can better know who we are and what we can do to best serve the community,” he said.
Kuncham helped turn the district into a shining example of what a modern educational system should look like. He worked to revamp the pre-kindergarten program, and launched a number of educational support services and programs for students before and after school and during the summer.
He helped the district obtain millions of dollars in grants that funded enrichment services and programs for the students. Over the past 14 years, the graduation rate in the district has increased from 60 percent to over 90 percent.
Numerous schools in the district benefited from his leadership in the areas of academics, the arts, athletics, and social and emotional development. Kuncham pushed wellness initiatives in the classrooms, as well as annual community peace efforts such as a peace march, a peace walk, and a peace concert.
“I don't know how he does it, but he goes to all the concerts, to all the special events that we have in the different buildings and all the games,” said Paula Lein, principal at the Archer Street School. “He is an outstanding leader. During the pandemic, he did an incredible job leading the district.”
Kuncham determined at the height of the pandemic how to serve nearly 7,000 children and nearly 1,000 staff members while simultaneously addressing their social and emotional needs.
The district was well prepared for remote education. Kuncham also established a mobile drive-through at the schools so families could pick up hot breakfasts and lunches for their children throughout the year.
As students gradually returned to classrooms, the schools instituted strict measures for cleaning, social distancing and mask-wearing. Mobile clinics and vans visited Freeport High School on many occasions, in collaboration with Northwell Health and Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital.
“We all came together, with the help of every staff member and with the help of our children, who have been nothing short of extraordinary in those circumstances,” Kuncham said. “Along with the support of the families, we were really able to make the magic happen.”
Kuncham founded the Freeport Education Foundation in 2013 to provide students with innovative programs and one-of-a-kind learning experiences, giving them the chance to make the most of their education. Through programs that bring together students, instructors and families, the foundation focuses on developing partnerships between the school and the community. It also raises $30,000 to $50,000 annually for student scholarships and grants for innovative educational initiatives.
Outside school, Kuncham serves on the board of directors of the United Way of Long Island and Island Harvest. With the help of
United Way of Long Island, he implemented new after-school and community programs such as the annual backpack project, in which roughly 500 backpacks are given to local families.
Kuncham is also committed to reducing hunger and food waste on Long Island through his leadership with Island Harvest. The organization collects excess food from grocery stores, restaurants, farms and other food industry partners, and distributes it to hunger-relief agencies and food banks around Long Island, supporting nearly 150,000 children and families each year.
“Food insecurity here on Long Island and Freeport has been something dear to me for over 25 years,” Kuncham said. “My goal really is to have Island Harvest go out of business. I think if and when we go out of business, that means that we have ended the hunger problem.”
Despite all of his accomplishments in strengthening the public education system and the community of Freeport, Kuncham feels there is still more to be done, and is already planning ahead.
“I would say that there's always more work to be done,” he said. “The journey is always ongoing, and it's all about continuous improvement, continuous excellence, and trying to bring the best for our children.”