Colorado’s 2021 Superintendent of the Year didn’t plan a career in education. Engineering was Keith Owen’s calling, he was sure, but once the Pueblo native arrived at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and enrolled in a program where students spend time on the job with professional engineers, he quickly realized he’d picked the wrong field.
“Having the same routine, behind a desk all day….that was just not really intriguing to me,” said Owen, who leads the Fountain-Fort Carson School District.
Luckily, he had a mentor — technically the mentor of his then-girlfriend, now wife-of-25-years, Georgina. The man was a teacher who let Owen tag along to see what being in the classroom was really like. Owen was sold. He switched his major and never looked back, except to appreciate the serendipity.
Some people spend a lifetime searching for their dream job. Owen got lucky, and in turn generations of Colorado students reaped the benefits, said his wife.
“If there’s anything I can say about him, it’s that he is really doing exactly what he’s meant to do … and he is not afraid to speak up for kids, no matter who he’s speaking to,” said Georgina, who now works for the Colorado Department of Education.
Keith Owen grew up and graduated from high school in Pueblo, and that’s where he returned in 1993 to begin his career, leading a class of 31 second graders as one of the few male teachers at Carlile Elementary. The experience confirmed he’d made the right decision, and also that there was more, so much more, he wanted to do.
When an opportunity came up to attend a program run by the University of Northern Colorado for teachers who wanted to pursue higher degrees and enter administration, both Keith and Georgina, then a teacher in the Pueblo district, signed up. Both got masters degrees and became licensed as principals.
Almost as soon as Keith had his credentials, he landed a job as an assistant principal at John Mall High School in Walsenburg, thanks to a connection he’d made in the UNC program.
There, he “had a chance to really help him (the principal) change the culture of a high school building and change expectations about a school that had gotten to the point where it was really struggling,” said Owen, who was “being tasked with getting it turned around.”
That’s what he set out to do, by first asking those affected the most what went wrong.
“I started to see … when I talked to a lot of the high school kids who were struggling … a connection with issues that they had had with reading, with learning, that hadn’t been addressed at the elementary level that were really impacting their ability to be successful in high school,” he said.
He was only at the school for a year, but the time had a “profound impact” on his path, how he thought about education, and how he thought he could help. Perhaps most importantly, he’d learned that turning a high school around was something that needed to start long before students reached high school.
“If we didn’t do everything we could to help them become good readers and be prepared for the middle school experience, a lot of these kids wouldn’t make it through high school,” he said.
At his next post, and first principalship, Beulah Heights Elementary, in Pueblo, he put that wisdom into action.
“Rather than do the same old, same old — purchase a program, have the teachers get trained in the program and have the teachers deliver the program, he himself jumped in got trained and ended up teaching some of those reading classes as well,” said Georgina. “You just don’t see a lot of principals doing that, where they’re right there with the teachers teaching, but … he wants to be in there doing that work with students, so any opportunity he has to directly work with kids he does.”
During his five years at Beulah Heights, the school’s performance improved to the point that it was recognized by President George W. Bush as one of the nation’s top performing Title 1 schools.
Owen left the school when he was tapped to serve as assistant superintendent for the district, where he coordinated instructional support. In 2008, the family moved to Durango, where Keith served for three years as superintendent. Then came Denver, and a turn as the state’s Deputy Commissioner of Education, running programs for struggling schools around the state.
“I really got to see what was working and what wasn’t working, and what I came away with was how great education was in Colorado, even in really removed rural areas of the state and even in large urban areas … how many great communities and people were serving kids each day,” he said. “But I also also had a lot of tough conversations with school districts that were struggling. I had to work with some that were trying their best to serve kids but still weren’t meeting expectations.”
He considered staying in state-level administration, but then the call came about the superintendent opening at Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8. He was told, come take a look, and “we think it would be a great fit for you.” Owen did, and agreed.
Board president Lori Kimball remembers how he made a lasting impression the first time they met one-on-one in June, 2015, soon after he was hired to lead the district. She asked him to look into a couple issues, a few concerns she had and wanted addressed, and asked if he could get it done before the beginning of the next school year.
Rather than giving a boilerplate “sure thing,” Owen told Kimball he saw her point, and understood the goal, but needed to look into it himself.
“He’s an educator, he’s a teacher, so he has his pen and paper with him and he’s taking notes,” Kimball said. “He was very willing to listen to what I had to say … but wanted to do some research, wanted to go through and talk to people. That’s the way he handles everything — very honest, very knowledgeable, very thorough. He’s just a good guy.”
Kimball nominated Owen for the statewide award, announced late last year by the Colorado Association of School Executives.
Georgina Owen doesn’t doubt the news left her famously humble husband full of pride, all directed outward, toward the educators who serve one of the state’s most heavily military districts.
“I just think even though this award is being given to Keith, I know being in education myself it’s a huge team effort,” she said. “And so I think that’s something he’s really proud of, just the people he works with every day and this amazing military community we get to serve. It really is an entire village of people who make it work.”
The fact that Owen’s wearing the laurel for a school year that’s unlike any in generations, when the threat of interrupted and lost learning is real for students at schools that had not previously been “struggling,” is not lost on him.
“I’ve been in education a few years, this has been by far the most challenging situation we have ever had to face in my experience in public education,” said Owen. “There was a devastating impact when we had to close schools last March. This year has caused us to do things that K-12 schools have never done before. But now … we’re testing students, testing staff, and we’ve seen everyone rise to incredible heights.”
In-person classes in the district began after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, with elementary school students attending full-day classes and an every-other-day model in the high school.
“Our elementary school finished an entire semester of in-person learning, five days a week for the first semester during the pandemic. Our educational teams met with them on a daily basis,” said Owen, adding that, to date, there have been no outbreaks at the school. “I would call that first semester just a huge success story that we were able to pull it off and support our kids. We’re a public school district and we know our best work is done in person.”
Despite efforts to keep things as streamlined as possible, he knows the repercussions of COVID-19 won’t end with the pandemic.
“I think we’re going to see gaps occurring because of this, educational, social and emotional,” he said. “Hopefully by August we’re at a state where we can get back to a lot of the things that make schools great again. But our kids are going to have gaps that need to be closed over the following year, and years to come.”