Eagles' Terry Saul tapped for OASA honor

May 18—Outside Superintendent Dr. Terry Saul's office, the final stage of a long-range vision is taking shape in the form of a new Sequoyah Public Schools elementary building.

Beyond the rebar and concrete foundation is a story of how a small rural school in Oklahoma is exceeding expectations, and its leadership is being recognized as a bright spot on the public education landscape in Oklahoma.

Under construction is the "single most impactful project we've had here at Sequoyah," Saul said. "It is certainly the buzz of our community."

The new 52,000-square-foot elementary building will serve as the "storefront" for the rural school that annually serves around 1,250 students, pre-K to 12th grade. The incoming pre-K class will top out at 80 students.

Completing this project is a milestone in Saul's first 21 years at Sequoyah schools. He's contemplating another 20. He's been in education for 31 years.

Saul was recently nominated by his peers and has now been chosen as the 2024 Superintendent of the Year for District 6 of the Oklahoma Association of School Administrators. In June, he will be recognized at the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration Summer Leadership Conference.

"When you have honors or recognitions like this one you just reflect on 'it's a team win for us,'" Saul said. "There are so many people that make this happen on a daily basis."

"Dr. Saul is among the best of Oklahoma administrators," said Dr. Pam Deering, CCOSA/OASA executive director. Sauls leadership is about building community, cultivating and empowering other leaders and focusing on student success, she said.

"It is an honor to accept this [OASA] award on behalf of the entire Sequoyah Public School team," Saul said.

The school, the leadership

Sequoyah is one of eight public school districts in Rogers County, established in 1908. The name pays homage to a man named Sequoyah who invented a written language for his Cherokee people nearly 200 years ago.

For nearly the past 100 years, the school facilities have been situated alongside the internationally acclaimed Route 66, just a few miles north of Claremore, the county seat. Locals and visiting tourists from all over the world see the blue and gold Eagles Stadium alongside the east side of the highway. The Pope Athletic Complex sparkles on a sunny day like a well-polished jewel and twinkles with lights brighter than stars in on a Friday night.

"When we arrived in 2003, our Board [of Education] set us on a mission for a long-range strategic plan for facilities. It was kind of a growth period at that time," he said.

It started out as a 15-year master plan, and was extended to include the elementary project in progress today. Bond issues were passed, new school buildings were built, others renovated and updated — with the exception of the high school, which was in place when Saul arrived. Also added were agriculture and fine arts buildings, the Olan Graham practice gym.

The renovation of the Pope Athletic Complex was "really big for us," Saul said. Eagle boosters note theirs was the first 2A public school to have synthetic turf which has since been replaced with NFL-grade synthetic turf — another first.

"I have what I call a local group of experts to help us with the facilities," Saul said. "People in construction, excavation, architects, engineers all homegrown experts who sat around the table and discussed this plan. It is so easy for me in certain situations, to say, 'I don't know much about building a road, but I can call Brian Green [a local builder].' Gene Haynes was on my board ... you have an attorney sitting right there, engineers and architects over the years who sat on our committees and people who just cared about the community.

The vision, the reality

"Our vision is very simple but a powerful one: We want our kids to love to learn. When they leave Sequoyah, we know the learning is not going to stop," Saul said.

He came to Sequoyah from a much larger district, Muskogee, where the high school student count equals the entire Sequoyah schools' population. It's a move Saul and his wife, Sherry, have found fitting. She teaches kindergarten.

"Our community doesn't want to be a big school district. We serve a very unique population," Saul said.

The district is rural and not associated with any incorporated town or city.

"There isn't a turnpike ramp nearby," he said, and he sees that as beneficial. "You have to want to be here."

Saul describes the Sequoyah community as having a "lot of traditional families." He tells students, "Your mom and dad chose this place for you so we want you to come back. Go explore, go into the workforce right away, get your college, go to career tech, get your education. But we want you to come back."

Saul believes leading the school is about meeting the standards of the community.

"We know our kids and families are true blue, loyal hardworking, high ethic, high character families. We match that daily here. Our people work hard," he said. "Our standard for our teachers and staff is they are going to come every day, give relentless effort, care about your kids and make sure we have a product to provide, all the programs you need, even special programming. Our kids have extracurricular comprehensive athletics, fine arts, all kinds of technology."

Sequoyah provides in house career tech classes on campus, one being A+ IBM certification, shooting sports. The school has the second-largest enrollment in FFA in northeast Oklahoma, and second only to Jenks in the metro Tulsa region. Sequoyah has two off-campus CareerTech options and partners with Rogers State University for concurrent college classes.

"We have room for growth if it comes our way," Saul said. "But we have a niche that we fill, we fit. We don't try to be anything but that."

Consistency in leadership

Saul believes consistency in leadership found within the ranks of the support staff, teachers and administrators has been key in his success.

"We tell people to lead where you are," whether administrators, teachers, paraprofessionals, support staff or as a member of the Board of Education.

"We tell people all the time, maybe you were not part of the vision writing process, but we hired you based on the vision, and when new folks come in, you have to match a certain standard," Saul said of hiring new staff.

Saul understands the school is "the heart of the community."

"We've been fortunate across the years to have a culture that keeps people here," he said. "Our campus is immaculate, difficult to find trash, difficult to find blades of grass out of whack. There are people who have been icons here for years: Ms. Leah [Barnes] ... Mr. Butch Rhine. He's the custodian, but we call him 'the polisher. We just named the basketball court after Mr. Rhine."

He said he has a soft heart for support staff.

"[These are] people who have a lot of pride in what they do behind the scenes: cafeteria workers, bus drivers, paraprofessionals and administrative assistants, teacher groups. There's just no way we could do school the way we do it without them," Saul said.

Saul attends almost every school-related event.

"I never have to drag myself to those things," he said. "I always say if you want to judge a band teacher, watch those kids in December and go hear them in May. It's something to hear a sixth-grader play."

As the school year ends, Saul said, there are many events this week: a banquet this weekend, graduation, and more.

"Some may just be checking the boxes, but I enjoy going. This is what we do. We are committed to it," he said.

"I don't mind competing at all. If a private school is in our neighborhood, we'll compete with you. We think we have programming that can match that, and it's free," Saul said. "What I've been telling our people is there's still a really good fight to be fought for public education. And the good fight is worth fighting."

"I still think public education is still the best opportunity for all kids and all families," Saul said.