Students will be new superintendent's focus

URBANA — In the weeks that led up to the official end of the Urbana school year, Don Owen was both mentally and physically preparing for his new job as the school district's superintendent.

He'll start the job Monday.

While both his job title and office will change — he'll now sit at the front of the building, not far from the front desk — Owen made it clear that one thing won't: his dedication to Urbana' students.

The Urbana school board hired Don Owen as its next superintendent in January 2012, almost immediately after outgoing Superintendent Preston Williams announced he'd retire this summer.

Williams has been mentoring Owen since, Owen said, but that relationship started long before Owen was chosen as Williams' successor.

Williams hired Owen to his first eighth-grade history teaching job at Urbana Middle School in 1990, although Owen began his career in Urbana for a semester in 1989, when he was site coordinator for Wiley Elementary's after-school program.

"We've been together since my first teaching job," Owen said. "It's not just big shoes to fill; it's a presence and a personality."

He said he's looking forward to continuing the work he and Williams started together.

"I really am excited about coming to work every day," Owen said.

He intends to focus on students: helping them achieve their personal goals, and using the district's strategic plan to improve students' personalized learning.

He plans to find ways to make sure "all levels of district decision-making" are focused on students' best interests.

"I think we are always looking to improve the way we do things at all levels to make (the district) better for students," Owen said.

He said he's well aware of the school district's needs. These include keeping an eye on electronic and mobile technologies over the next five years, and finding funding for them; supporting teachers as the district starts using the new state learning standards and the new tests that will accompany them; and "communicating the great things our students are doing and are capable of doing in our schools."

Owen believes Urbana offers more opportunities for students than any choice of private school.

Another challenge: funding in general.

That Illinois schools rely primarily on property tax revenues results in "inequities across the state," Owen said.

"It forces creativity and innovation (to create) opportunities for kids when the system is almost inherently inequitable," Owen said.

Urbana has lost property tax money because of the Carle Physicians Group's property tax exemptions and has been involved in a legal battle on the issue, as well.

"If we weren't under that system, (Carle's taxes) wouldn't be an issue," Owen said

'Extension of my family'

Owen loved teaching and still identifies himself as a teacher first.

"I miss teaching a lot," he said, and liked it because, especially at the middle school level, no two days were ever the same.

"I chose to be a teacher because I loved that energy students brought to my life," he said.

He's found working as an administrator is the same.

"It's always exciting," he said. "It's always a new challenge."

Owen loves Urbana because it's a tightly knit community and incredibly diverse.

"I love that diversity is a strength to the school system," Owen said. "It's small enough that you can really capitalize on diversity as a strength."

Over the years, Owen has been aware of other opportunities in other school districts. But they haven't been as attractive as staying in Urbana.

"As far as the school system, it's always felt like an extension of my family," Owen said.

Ten years ago, he would have predicted that today, he'd still work at Urbana. He wouldn't have predicted, however, that he'd be the district's newest superintendent.

However, he describes his movement toward his new job as "a natural progression."

He likes new challenges and has consistently taken on new responsibilities, volunteering for committees and taking on additional duties. He's always been involved in state-level education work on topics like curriculum and assessment.

"I like that involvement," Owen said, and it keeps Urbana at the forefront of what's going on in education and up to date on "what's good for kids."

He became a department chairman at the middle school and moved to Urbana's central office in 2002 when he became director of gifted education and staff development. He's been assistant superintendent for six years.

In his new position, he'll have a broader focus rather than specifically working on curriculum, assessment and instruction.

He'll work more with local agencies, like the Economic Development Corp., the Regional Planning Commission and other municipal offices.

But that won't change his first focus: his students.

"I see myself ... grounded in the classroom," Owen said.

'A workaholic'

School board President John Dimit said he's looking forward to working with Owen, calling him approachable and easy to work with.

"He has a great relationship with all seven of the school board members," Dimit said, as well as with the school district's staff members and administrators.

"I have never heard anyone say they can't get along with him," he said.

And, because he has been in the district a long time and has children in Urbana's schools, "I think he'll be very aware of what's going on throughout the district," Dimit said.

"That awareness will help him work toward excellent recommendations to" the school board.

Owen has a way of working through facts and data to show the school board what information is meaningful, Dimit said, and will be dedicated to the job constantly.

"I'm afraid he's going to be a workaholic," Dimit said. "As good employers, we're going to make sure we don't overwork him."

Jean Korder, Urbana's director of curriculum, instruction and design, said Owen is particularly good at seeing many perspectives without getting caught up in them. Also, he believes in the school district, its teachers, students and families.

"He has a crystal clear vision of what he believes about our school district," Korder said. "In tough times, that will really see us through."

Champaign Superintendent Judy Wiegand said Williams was one of the first people she contacted for advice when she was hired for the job in December 2011. She passed that same advice onto Owen.

"His advice to me, which I gladly will share, is to keep in mind the main focus of our work — students," Wiegand said. "When the pressures of the central office start to become burdensome, make sure you take the time to get out to the buildings and spend time with the children. Take time to sit in an early childhood classroom or in the lunchroom at a middle school. It helps keep things in perspective."

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ASchmitt wrote on July 01, 2013 at 2:07 pm

I had the pleasure of working with Don during my first five years of teaching, and years later his example continues to be important to me. He is an outstanding educator who has always been grounded in his regard for students and teachers. He will be an excellent superintendent and Urbana is lucky to have him.