‘Students First’ Motivates Saunders

When he was a kid, he was usually the muddiest ballplayer on the field who couldn’t wait to get back to fishing after the game, and he continued his athletic career at Wheeling Park High School.

And then Walt Saunders went off to college. He liked math, he wanted to teach, and he really didn’t want to leave his hometown in order to do so.

So, he didn’t, and today, following 16 years as a math teacher, an assistant principal at Warwood School, and a principal at Triadelphia Middle and Madison Elementary, Saunders is close to completing his first year as the director of federal programs for Ohio County Schools.

“As with any move, the learning curve has been a big thing, but I entered into it prepared to learn anything I had to in order to do the best job possible,” Saunders explained. “That learning curve was steeper than I expected because with federal programs you have to handle all of the regulation changes, and there have been a lot of them. An example would be the ‘A to F’ grading system. We started the year with that, and it was a huge thing because I spent a lot of time studying it so we could anticipate how we were going to be graded.

Saunders (in the middle) joined the Central Office of Ohio County Schools prior to the beginning of the current academic year.

“But now that ‘A to F’ system no longer exists, so now it’s on to a new system, and I will learn that the same ways,” he continued. “Plus, in this position, you have to digest all of the rules and regulations that pertain to all of the federal education programs with which we are involved.”

Recently the Ohio County Board of Education voted 4-1 in favor of continuing to offer free breakfasts and lunches in all of the system’s schools, a program that is in part funded by the federal government. Saunders, a father of four, was pleased with the approval because of the benefits he has witnessed while serving as a school principal.

“Everything we do as a school system has an impact on our students, and the meals programs have had a very positive effect from what I have seen. We know that a hungry child is not going to learn, and we can see those students when they walk through the door, and you can just tell that they didn’t eat a breakfast,” Saunders explained. “You can just see it, and as a principal I made sure we took care of those students whether or not we had a program in place.

Reaching out to the students of Ohio County Schools remains an important priority to Saunders and his colleagues.

“In order to learn, the basic needs of a student have to be met. They have to feel safe, and they have to be fed in order learn. It’s that simple,” he said. “If we do not accomplish those things, then we are wasting our time.”

Saunders also administers the federal Title I education programs for Ohio County Schools, and that involves utilizing resources to ensure that all children are afforded the chance to acquire a high-quality education. With the constant advancement and availability of technology, such a goal, Saunders insisted, is far more difficult today than it was when he was that 7-year-old playing for the Elm Grove Lions on the Patterson baseball fields.

“As most people likely realize, there’s more to education these days than reading and math,” he said. “We have problems from outside our schools that now come into our schools, and we need to address those issues because if our students are not prepared to learn, it doesn’t matter what the teacher is doing inside those classrooms.

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Saunders works with Special Education Director Leah Stout in the Central Office.

“That is why I believe the Title I counselors we’ve added have been a blessing because they have been able to reach out to our students and to members of our community in order to deal with those kinds of issues,” he reported. “Our teachers and our counselors handle a lot of different things these days, and one of them is social media. There are bullying issues, and even when kids are playing a game on their Xbox, they like to pick on each other, and that activity seems to create a lot of issues for a lot of students.”

While much of the support staff remained in place, the Ohio County Board of Education hired Dr. Kim Miller as the system’s newest superintendent. Miller assumed the duties on July 1 of last year and immediately began the process of filling three additional Central Office positions.

Saunders was one of her selections, and his position involved much more than federal programming.

“While I do concentrate a great deal on those initiatives, the other component of my position involves the standardized testing. Plus, I also have input on the math and science curriculums that are offered in Ohio County’s public schools,” Saunders said. “But if another administrator is in need of assistance with a matter or issue, the rest of us are there to help anyway we can. That’s how it works now.

One of his favorite aspects of being an educator, Saunders insisted, is his interaction with the pupils.

“In the beginning of this school year, all of the Central Office administrators traveled around to each of our schools, but at the same time those schools were given local control because to do the same thing from National Road in Elm Grove is a difficult task,” he explained. “With Dr. Miller, it’s always students first, and local control has made a great difference with making our students the priority. Her first question is always, ‘How will this benefit our students?’ And that approach translates to the teachers and to the students, and that’s been the big change.”

He does miss the constant interaction with students that he enjoyed while a teacher and an in-school administrator, but Saunders is pleased with his first year in his current position because he does possess the flexibility to be inside one of the county’s 13 school buildings at any time.

And although Ohio County’s public school students are now in the middle of the annual standardized testing process, he now finds himself busy with planning for the next academic year.

“I really don’t think the planning part ever ends in a position like this one,” Saunders said. “It’s a constant process of examining where we are now, and where we need to be in the future, and that includes everything from staffing, the books, and everything else that’s involved in the business of education.

“Because we have some employees in the Central Office that have been there for a longer period than the four new administrators, we have had the chance to look back to gain that perspective about where we are now and how we got here,” he said. “The way we are looking at it now is that we have the overall goal of becoming the best possible school system, and this year we took several steps toward making that a reality.”

(Photos provided by Gabe Wells, Ohio County Schools)