By Mike Marsee
Owens Saylor doesn’t play the trombone any more, but he still knows a thing or two about hitting the right notes.
Saylor, who was named the 2016 Superintendent of the Year by the Kentucky Association of School Administrators, is a former music educator who has been in administration for 19 years. And while he no longer plays or teaches music, he said he still applies many of the things he learned from that part of his life.
“A lot of the things I learned about being a superintendent I learned through my experience in music: self-discipline, persistence and the fact that we’re seeking excellence in what we do,” Saylor said. “Get 95 percent of the notes right and you’ve had a bad performance.”
Daviess County schools have been performing well under Saylor’s leadership. Daviess County has been a Distinguished district for three straight years and its state accountability scores place it in the top five districts in the state.
Saylor said he is a small part of a larger success story that started well before he came to Daviess County in 2012.
“I’m honored and humbled and certainly appreciative of the people in Daviess County, who have given me such a great welcome and have been a part of some really great things and have led a lot of great things,” he said.
One of the things that Saylor is most proud of is “Great Expectations,” an initiative aimed at students whose background may not include the expectation of going to college or high career aspirations.
Under the college and career readiness program, students make their first visit to a college campus while still in elementary school. Middle school students are encouraged to take courses that will prepare them for dual-credit courses in high school, and college and career coaches at the high schools work with students to help them meet ACT and readiness benchmarks.
“Mr. Saylor’s Great Expectations plan for students and staff has set our district on a path for success,” said Melanie Duckwall, a 3rd-grade teacher at East View Elementary School. “His thoughts of education as a journey without an end inspires educators to set the bar high for learning for students and continuing education themselves. His focus on the success of all students has given district staff a challenge and new goals to reach.”
In part because of Great Expectations, Daviess County’s college and career readiness numbers have doubled to better than 70 percent and are still on the way up.
“That has been one of the great achievements of our district,” Saylor said.
Both of the district’s high schools, Apollo and Daviess County, were ranked on U.S. News and World Report’s 2015 list of the top 30 Kentucky high schools.
“College and career readiness is not just the passing of the benchmark test. It also has to do with the infrastructure of the courses they take and that students are getting a good quality outcome from those courses so they really are ready to attain and hold a family-sustainable career. Those things are what I’m really pleased about,” Saylor said.
Another significant change was made at Daviess County’s alternative high school, which was moved from an outdated facility into a building adjacent to Daymar College. Saylor said the classroom and laboratory spaces more closely resemble what students would see in college.
Student-teacher ratios also have been reduced at the alternative school, and multiple avenues have been created for remediation and acceleration there. That has led to a dramatic shift in college and career readiness scores, from just one student at the alternative school reaching the benchmarks in 2013 to 18 students in 2014.
“We’re trying to transform the alternative school experience for our students,” Saylor said.
Teachers in the district have been transformed as well.
“I am thankful to work with a superintendent who focuses on cultivating leadership for the betterment of every person in the district,” said Tricia Murphy, an instructional coach at Whitesville Elementary School. “He values the importance of developing leadership skills in every child, but feels just as strongly about encouraging that same growth in leadership of staff members for the betterment of all. This has had a huge impact on my personal career, but also on the success of every one of my students.”
Saylor called education “my family business,” noting that his grandfather was a director of pupil personnel in Harlan County and his grandmother, father, mother, sister and wife have all been teachers.
His interest in education revolved around music, which he said has been a part of his life since he was a child, when he learned to play the trombone and took voice and piano lessons.
“I knew when I was a freshman in high school that I wanted to be a high school band director,” he said.
Saylor did that for nine years in Florida and nine more in the Jessamine County schools before becoming an assistant principal at East Jessamine High School when it opened in 1997. He later served as principal at West Jessamine High School and was deputy superintendent in Jessamine County when he was drawn to Daviess County, the state’s 10th-largest district.
“As fantastic as my impression was of Daviess County was from the outside, it grew even more when I got here,” Saylor said. “The quality of our teachers is just remarkable and continues to grow. The quality of our principals’ leadership is incredible and continues to grow. Operations teams, maintenance, transportation, food service, it’s remarkable the quality of folks we have working here.
“And our students and our families have to be in it with us, and that certainly has been the case.”
Saylor has spent 36 years in education, and he said he has a few more years in him.
“I hope I do, because the challenges change. Every year we’re looking at what directions to move next and how to meet the needs of all students,” he said. “I think that keeps the work fresh, and I think there’s enough competitiveness in me to want to do great things and help this district keep moving forward.”
Saylor said he has never been more excited about his work.
“I think our students are far more school savvy than ever before. We have more tools and there are more challenges because of that,” he said. “I think it’s an exciting time to be an educator, and I feel very strongly that the future of our Commonwealth depends on what we do and how well we do it.”
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