At the end of June, Dover school superintendent Jerry Owens will leave the district. Owens announced his plans at the end of the 2015-16 school year allowing an orderly transition to the administration of his designated successor, elementary principal Josh Daniels.
The Chronicle visited with Owens about his memories of the past and his plans for the future.
The Chronicle: You’ve been superintendent here for 10 years. That’s what most people in this area know about you. But what about before then? Where are you from? What was your background in education? Where did you teach, or coach or administer before coming to Dover?
Jerry Owens: Actually, before coming to Dover, for 22 years I was in the Morrilton school system starting there as a volunteer coach. I volunteered for two years and then became a teacher and a coach starting in 1985. I taught science and p.e. and health and was the head baseball coach for 10 years and an assistant football coach. In 1995 I became assistant principal at the junior high school there in Morrilton for two years and then in ’97 I become the assistant superintendent for support services . At that time, that included being the athletic director and director of maintenance. Two years later I was assigned the additional duties of Federal Coordinator.
So again, it was a kind or interesting title. There’s not a lot of athletic directors/federal coordinators/director of maintenances out there.
TC: You had a finger in every pie.
Owens: Yeah, but again, it was something I want to do. I enjoyed it and I learned a whole lot about curriculum at that time. And then a couple of years later when the Director of Curriculum left, I became the Director of Curriculum.
And so at that point, basically, I had curriculum, the federal coordinating part of the district, and transportation and basically all the other programs that are under there. I did all that as assistant auperintendent.
TC: If that’s what the Assistant Superintendent did what was the superintendent doing?
Owens: He was supporting me. He was very, very good to me.
Anyway, I did that for 10 years, so that was a total of 22 years in the Morrilton school district. That, with 10 years here, gives me a total of 32 years in education.
TC: So Morrilton and Dover represent…
Owens: I’ve only been those two places..
TC: Where you from Morrilton originally?
Owens: I’m from Clinton originally. I did my observation at Morrilton, and from there, they called me the next summer and asked me to be a volunteer coach. And that’s when I became a full-time volunteer coach for two years.
TC: And that was in what sport?
Owens: In baseball and in football.
TC: So even though you’d never been a superintendent before Dover, you’d had experience in about everything a superintendent does.
Owens: Yes. They prepared me very well in getting to do all those different things. I drove a bus, I ran a stripper ( for stripping and waxing floors). Again, just very valuable experience.
TC: You’ve been superintendent here at Dover for 10 years, which is good tenure. When you look back, your predecessor, Dan Lovelady was here for 10 years. And Richard Paul before him was seven years.
Owens: I’m really not sure about that.
TC: I believe that’s correct, Dr. Paul for seven years and before him, Danny taylor for at least 12 or 13.
So it’s almost become a tradition at Dover for a long tenure in the office.
I guess my next question would be looking back over your decade, how is the Dover school system different now from how it was when you assumed the superintendency?
Owens: OK well, a couple of things really stand out.
First and foremost, academically: Academics have changed. Teaching methods have changed. We’re one-to-one in almost every classroom setting now.
TC: In technology.
Owens: Technology-wise, the teaching methodology has certainly changed. There’s been a whole lot of emphasis on hands-on activities, one-on-one activities with students, really individualized instruction and so forth, and I think I’ve seen that grow and change since I’ve been here.
I feel good about that change.
Obviously, again, facility-wise we’ve changed very, very much. We actually had a visit from the state department today. They came up and were going to use us as a model for facilities, according to the director of facilities of the Arkansas Department of Education. They were going to use our district as a model for facilities. So that’s something to be very, very proud of.
TC: Mrs. Walker told me you had a facilities tour this morning, but she didn’t say with whom.
Owens: Yes. Our facilities have changed. There’s a safe room on every campus. Every campus is, for the most part, totally enclosed where students don’t have to go outside as much. Of course there are still a few exceptions, as with the agri facility for which they have to walk across the high school. But the younger kids for the most part, K-8, are able to stay inside, enclosed all day long.
That’s certainly a safety feature that has changed, and we’re very proud of that. We’ve been able to increase the safety and security of our students, and on top of that, it leads to increased instruction time.
During the walk today with the department of facilities personnel, I was able to take them through the school and share with them our academic success and we feel like with the increased time students can stay in the classroom, not being outside and not walking between buildings, getting soaking wet… I mean, obviously, it just has to improve the learning capacity of the students.
TC: Less distraction.
Owens. Yeah, you can’t walk from your classroom to the cafeteria and back and get soaking wet and do a good job in math and literacy. It just can’t happen.
So obviously, for generations to come, for years and years to come, that’s going to impact education in a positive way.
TC: Sort of connected with that, looking back over the 10 years, what specifically would you take pride in as your greatest accomplishment? Something that is especially memorable?
Owens: I’m going to go again with academic achievement. Anytime I start talking to folks about the Dover school district, I start talking about academic achievement. Obviously, we have a school that is in the top five percent, the top 20 percent.
The rating that’s come out, actually it’s come out in June of last year and we’re waiting for it to come out again. It ranked Dover school district at 27 in a combined rating of ACT tests, ACT Aspire, all the tests that all the students take, K-12, we were ranked twenty-seventh in the state.
So, you know, the motto of everything that we do has to be geared toward academic excellence, academic improvement. I think anything you do, if it doesn’t impact student learning, then it’s not beneficial. And obviously, the different things that we have done have contributed toward the academic success. So the one thing, and certainly, I just got to be a small part of it, is being a part of the academic success of the Dover school district. That’s certainly the thing I’ll take away from here with the greatest amount of pride.
TC: I think you exactly right that all the, construction, the changes in instruction, the staffing is just a means to an end.
Owens: Yes, if the improved academic performance is not there, then it’s all for naught. And we have that. I’m very proud of that and very proud of where we stand academically. That certainly stands out way above anything else.
TC: OK. As opposed to looking back over the past 10 years, if you were to look ahead over the next 10 years, And of course, this is something we’ll talk later to your successor Josh Daniels about, but from your point of view, what do you feel will be the greatest challenge that will face the new superintendent and the Dover School District in general during the next few years?
Owens: I think it’s going to surround ensuring academic success for each and every student. I think things are changing. I think from the state level and at the state level they’re talking about charter schools and school vouchers and school choice.
We’re seeing a whole lot of online options now; there are online schools popping up everywhere which allow students to stay at home and study. There are virtual schools popping up everywhere and most of them are full. So I really think the traditional school, with the eight to three or eight to three-thirty school day sitting in a classroom is going to become a thing of the past very quickly. And we’re going to have to adapt to that. And we already have to some extent.
We’ve implemented the HUB, which will take place next year and will allow students to take a class or two if they need it and work maybe toward an associate’s degree or a journeyman plumber or some other trade like auto body work, whatever the need of the student requires is what we’re going to have to do. We’ll have to tailor the educational setting to the needs of the student. People just demand individualized instruction now more than they used to.
And meeting the technology changes that are coming is going to be a challenge. Soon robotics is going to be a really, really big thing. We’re already seeing robots taking the place of some workers in some industries. We’re educating kids today for jobs that don’t even exist yet. And that’s hard to do because things keep changing so much.
TC: I’ve noted something that comes up in board meetings a lot is maybe a little insecurity about enrollment.
Owens: Funding is huge. There’s basically two parts to this: We’re funded by the state at $6,600 per student as our base funding and there’s a certain amount of courses you’re required to teach so you have to have a certain level of staff to teach that. On top of that, if you’re growing, you receive growth funds.
Growth funds are very important. One thing that I’ve learned in 10 years as a superintendent is that schools that are growing have a lot more opportunities and are more financially stable than school that are losing students. Schools that go into fiscal distress are normally losing students.
So that’s a challenge that the Dover school district faces again. We haven’t really had growth during the past 10 years. In fact, the enrollment now is slightly less than when I started.
TC: That’s what I understood. So I guess my question is, are we able to determine if these things you mentioned — the competition from online education and home schooling or charter schools, which haven’t become a big thing in this area yet…
Owens: Not yet.
TC: Are those the reasons or is it just a population function?
Owens: Probably a combination of all of the above. We got, I know, one transfer out of the district to an online school that was opened out of Van Buren. But generally I think it does come down to population.
The two things that attract people are always jobs and housing. Jobs and housing will always be the key factors.If you have affordable housing available that folks can move to or if you have good paying jobs people will move there.
But without that, school enrollment will struggle. It’s one of our biggest challenges because we’re always having to balance staff to reflect changes in student population.
TC: Let’s look away from the future of the school district to your personal future. What are your plans for a month from now when you step out of this office?
Owens: Well, I had initially hoped to take about six months off and do some golfing and fishing, but I’ve been offered a position at the state department of education in the transportation area as the senior transportation manager.
TC: I hadn’t heard that.
Owens: Yes, and I will start that new position July 3. So my retirement will be short-lived.
And while I’m excited about the new position, I regret that I’ll be moving away from the kids just a little bit more. Of my 32 years in education, the 10 years I enjoyed most were the years that I spent as a teacher and a coach. Without a doubt those 10 years hold the dearest and fondest memories. I always thought that I might go back to the classroom for my last few years before retirement because I just absolutely loved it. I taught seventh grade science and loved it.
But now I’m scheduled to go to the job as senior transportation manager,
TC: Do you have any closing remarks you might want to add to the patrons of the district at the close of our conversation?
Owens: The only thing I would add is a thank you for the opportunity for 10 years being a part of what is a wonderful district. People here have been very, very good to me. And I just appreciate the opportunity to serve the kids of the district.