Marion Sowders named as District School Improvement Coordinator

Marion2Marion Sowders, who has served as a Highly Skilled Educator for the Kentucky Department of Education (K.D.E.) for the past four years, has been named District School Improvement Coordinator for the Knox County Schools.

A native of Flat Lick and in his 17th year as an educator, Sowders began his new position on July 1st.

Sowders, who is the son of Louise Sowders and the late Bill Sowders, began teaching at Girdler Elementary in 1993 as a 7th/8th grade English teacher. In 1997, at the age of only 26, he was selected as principal at Boone Elementary School. In fall 2005, after eight years as principal, he was chosen by K.D.E. as a Highly Skilled Educator (H.S.E.) and left the District.

However, he returned to Knox County for a semester in spring 2006 to help plan for and open the new Knox County Middle School. Sowders also has worked in Knox, among other places, for a little over a year as a Highly Skilled Educator. Other H.S.E. assignments were in Fayette County for one year, Wayne County for almost two years, Bell County, and Clay County.

He also has participated in Scholastic Audits all over the state for schools and districts in “Tiered Consequences” status under No Child Left Behind (N.C.L.B.) or ”In Assistance” with CATS, the state testing system.

“I think he’s been one of the truly Highly Skilled Educators, one that K.D.E. looked to, to provide training on a number of fronts, in a lot of districts,” said Superintendent Walter T. Hulett.

“He comes to us very well trained and prepared and will be a tremendous asset to us as we go through this change through Senate Bill I and testing over the new few years, building our system. We’re excited for even having a chance for someone like Marion to come back and be part of that.”

Besides continuing the work he did as an H.S.E. with Knox County schools and the District, Sowders will take on several other duties previously handled by former Asst. Supt. Malena Jones who retired in June. Those responsibilities include SBDM, the Knox Intervention Plan (KIP), School and District Improvement Plans, Kentucky Teacher Internship Program (KTIP), and textbooks.

Sowders is already a State SBDM Trainer and has worked with response-to- intervention plans extensively. He will also help train teachers here on various professional development topics.

Recently, Sowders and a co- H.S.E., Lori Hollen, who has been working at Lynn Camp, presented a P.D. session to approximately 30 new Highly Skilled Educators and new Achievement Gap Coordinators meeting in Lexington.

Their topic was the Professional Learning Communities model they have developed through a joint company known as BRITE Ideas. “BRITE” stands for “Bringing Relevant Information To Educators.”

Professional Learning Communities bring teachers together on a regular basis to focus on curriculum, instruction and assessment.

“It’s all about pre-planning the next unit on a regular basis,” Sowders said. “You start with the state standards and develop an end-of-unit assessment that goes with that.”

Those tasks are essentially weeks one and two of a four-week process for P.L.C.’s that systematically revisit the process for each unit.

“We’ve had a lot of positive feedback,” Sowders said. “Teachers say it’s very practical. It makes sense.” Altogether, he and Ms. Hollen have trained over 50 districts on their P.L.C. model.

Asked about his educational philosophy, Sowders said, “There’s this little slogan that always comes to my mind – ‘Every Child, Every Day’ – because we owe everything we’ve got to every child in this District, whether rich, poor, whatever the circumstance – parents involved or not involved. . . . The students have the need and the right to be offered what other districts are offering. That’s one of my soapboxes.

“Sometimes because of maybe data or things that have happened in the past, Knox sometimes has a negative reputation, but I think the people that can change that are the people here in this district – from bus drivers, custodians, principals, central office, whoever the case may be, we have the answers, and we can do this. It’s not near as difficult as some people make it out to be.”

Sowders believes the Knox County School District is clearly on the path towards success. “I think we are. We’re starting to have the right conversations, and I think sometimes you have face the brutal facts, as author Jim Collins says, before things can improve, and I think with the Assist Team, we’ve had to answer some hard questions: Why are we doing this? is this working? Is this really what’s best for our students?

“I think we’ve started to have those brutal conversations, and there’s been some honesty coming to the table, and in a lot of areas we’re on the right track. Knox Central, for example, is really getting ready to turn a corner, more so than in the last 10-15 years.

“Things are starting to line up there. I think there was a switch this year. There was an emphasis on clear expectations. Not everyone liked those expectations, but they were consistent…and I think that is what people deserve. They deserve to know what are the expectations right up front, and then it’s up to us as a District to provide the support and help in order to do that. I do think we are on the right track.”

Sowders also noted that there are several other schools in Knox County that are “really moving forward” in addition to Knox Central, which, he said, “is just an example.”

He went on to note in more detail some of the positive things taking place in the Knox County Schools as a whole. “This past year, we really tried to narrow down some priority needs, and some of the priority needs were curriculum concerns. We thought we had an aligned curriculum, but there were some gaps in it, so we tried to focus on that.

“We’ve talked a lot about common rigorous assessments that are truly aligned with the standards, not from, maybe, a textbook. We talked about culture. There’s a lot of research right now that says that culture is one of the most important things in a school. If you have a negative culture, you can have the best curriculum and documents around, and you’re still not going to perform as well as you can.

“When a positive culture is in place, where there are very high expectations, people and students want to perform well, because it’s just expected. It’s just what we do.”

Sowders noted that at the end of last school year, all Knox County staff members participated in a week-long effort to look at the District’s curriculum again and align it with state standards, including college-readiness standards with the ACT.

“When we come back in the fall, we’ll make sure all teachers have those documents in their hands, ready to go. We’re also in the stage of having a core group of teachers that we use as facilitators – they’re going to come back and create a common assessment that matches each particular unit [in each content area], so that regardless of what school you go to in the county, every kid will get the same assessment. That way we can look at the data and gauge is it equitable? Are we servicing kids?”

Sowders said that all during this coming school year, teachers in Knox County will be creating these common assessments for upcoming units in all content areas. A unit is usually 3-4 weeks in duration.

Sowders’ educational credentials include graduating from Union College in 1993 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Middle Grade Education with an emphasis on social studies and language arts. Later he earned his Master’s Degree in Middle Grade Education and Rank I and Middle School Principalship and Supervisor of Instruction from Union College. He also received his Superintendent Certificate from the University of Kentucky.

Marion Sowders and wife Lana, who is a 5th/6th grade social studies teacher at Central Elementary as well as the District’s first Nationally Certified Teacher, have one daughter, Delaney, who will be in the second grade at Central Elementary this fall.

The Sowders family attends Highland Park Baptist Church at Heidrick where both parents are teaching the high school class during the upcoming vacation bible school.

This article was posted on Monday, July 20th, 2009 at 9:10 am.