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Saxe guiding home county to brighter future

March 11, 2018 GMT

HUNTINGTON — The past year was a whirlwind, to say the least, for Ryan Saxe.

Aside from welcoming his first child, the 36-year-old Ona native happened on the chance of a lifetime — to return home — when the Cabell County Board of Education began its search to replace the retiring Superintendent of Schools Bill Smith.

A thousand miles away serving as the school administration for Manatee County, Florida — a district with more students than the total population of Huntington — Saxe applied, and was chosen, to become the next superintendent of Cabell County, currently the youngest in the state.

A wooden plaque reading “Almost Heaven” over an outline of the Mountain State now hangs above his desk in Huntington, and though deep down he always knew he wanted to come home, he admitted with a laugh he didn’t expect it this soon.

“I feel tremendously blessed to be back in the foundation of my education, my first job (as a substitute teacher), and with my family.” Saxe said. “To come back and lead this district toward continued greatness is something I’m just so proud of.”

While leaving home is a bittersweet pill to take, as many West Virginia expatriates would agree, Saxe’s three-year stint in Florida schools exposed him to practices he’s now looking to apply back home. Access to digital learning - making sure that Cabell County students have access to instruction infused with technology - was chief among those lessons seen firsthand in Florida.

Many schools in Cabell County already offer individual laptops or tablets for elementary and middle school students, and the district is currently in negotiations to purchase more than 1,000 brand-new iPads for its Title I schools, those which serve many low-income students.

Saxe was also fascinated by the idea of housing the county pre-K facilities in non-traditional sites to promote early learning. One of Manatee County’s pre-K sites, he continued, was housed inside the South Florida Museum in Bradenton, Florida, and engaged young students with the resources available at the museum.

But coming in with some different ideas doesn’t have to come at the expense of proven, successful practices.

“When you come into a position like this, you have to take inventory of what is working well in the district so you don’t throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater,” Saxe said. “If there’s something that’s working well, we want to continue doing that.”

The county’s future

“That’s really what the first half of this year has been about: making sure I have a good understanding of what works well in this district,” Saxe said.

Chief among the district’s strengths is its staff, Saxe added, and their place supporting the students is where the future of the county lies.

“Our teachers and service personnel work so hard and are so dedicated to the success of our students. It goes beyond words. You see their interactions with kids.”

The school’s facilities are another strength, many having been newly built or remodeled including four new middle schools built within the past five years, a handful of brand-new elementary schools like Culloden and the Explorer Academy, and a new Highlawn Elementary School to be built in the next two years.

Modern schools are a luxury many West Virginia districts aren’t so readily afforded. Though the county’s two flagship high schools, Cabell Midland and Huntington High, are now approaching middle-age and a few older elementary schools require some care, Saxe said the county’s sound finances and community support will make it possible.

“We still have a lot of work to do to make sure we’re still moving in the right direction over the next 10 years.”

The topic of consolidating schools is impossible to avoid when discussing the future of school facilities, and Cabell County currently has tentative guidelines should it decide to consolidate a few select elementary schools. Saxe, however, states he believes firmly in the small, community school model, especially for elementary schools, and that there is no hard evidence that consolidation improves learning outcomes.

“If there’s any way we can keep that small school atmosphere alive, that’s something I’m supportive of.”

But beyond the next decade, the county’s long-term goals are ultimately in the classroom, and raising math scores remains a major focus across all grade levels. While overall elementary school test scores are “fairly spot-on,” he said, the middle and high schools “have some work to do in terms of academic achievement.”

“We’re going to have to do a better job meeting the needs our learning at secondary education, but also for the potential for post-secondary education,” Saxe said.

That means, he explained, that while the district strives to prepare all high school graduates to be college and career-ready, those two facets are not to be mutually exclusive. By that, Saxe added the county must provide more career and technical education officers for both student and adult learners, as well as more advanced level courses for those preparing for secondary education.

The moral imperative of the school

When it was announced in September that Cabell County Schools’ free school meals program fed nearly 10 percent more of its students last year while actually increasing revenue through the 2016-17 school year, Saxe heralded it as a moral and fiscal victory.

The program was set in motion by the board long before his arrival - in fact, he had never considered a countywide free meal program before - but it quickly became an example of one of the many successes he’ll continue in his term.

Given his worldview, he explained, Saxe sees the school district as public servants and a vehicle to shoulder the burdens of the community it serves.

“If we don’t try to meet the needs of every single student, then the cycle of poverty, of family drop-outs, and individuals who are so dependent on government to make ends meet, is never going to be broken,” Saxe said. “We have to have this philosophy that every child can learn and every child has the opportunity to do something great and be a citizen that contributes to society.

“That moral imperative is exactly that - that we believe this can be done and we’re going to do everything in our power to continue to do it, even knowing there are external factors that we can’t control.”

Follow reporter Bishop Nash on Twitter at @BishopNash.