Sara Smith’s first day as Fairview Elementary School’s principal was Monday. MIKE JAMES | THE DAILY INDEPENDENT

WESTWOOD A career in educational administration was not the plan when Fairview Elementary School’s new principal majored in history at Marshall University.

But time spent substitute teaching and volunteer coaching shifted Sara Smith’s priorities and a goal-oriented personality put her on the leadership track that brought her to what she calls her dream job.

School doesn’t start until mid-August, but Smith, whose first day was Monday, is already meeting with staff, setting academic priorities, planning back-to-school meet-and-greets — and grappling with a balky air conditioning unit that has left her new workplace uncomfortably warm.

“I’m very impressed with Fairview. Everyone has greeted me with open arms. Everyone I have met has been positive and encouraging. I’ve seen the love this community has for the kids who go to school here,” said the 29-year-old South Shore native.

“To say I’m excited is an understatement. I think that it’s a wonderful place,” she said. “My goal is to be the best elementary in Kentucky, and after meeting all the team members and with the superintendent’s support, I wholeheartedly believe it is possible. It is going to happen.”

Academically it starts with assessing academic priorities, one of them being mathematics — she is working with faculty on a math curriculum and supporting professional development sessions.

Her blueprint for instructional leadership includes getting out of her office and making frequent classroom visits to help and support teachers, she said.

Smith still lives in South Shore, but she won’t be heading there when the last buses leave every day. “Though I don’t live here, it’s important to emphasize that I’ll be a part of the community. I’ll be at school activities and events. I’ll be around,” she said.

Smith graduated from Greenup County High School in 2007 and after a year playing basketball at Transylvania University transferred to Marshall University, disgruntled with collegiate sports and wanting to concentrate on her history studies.

To keep her down time occupied, she took up volunteer coaching at GCHS, and to make money she started substitute teaching.

It was a combination of the two, seeing the impact she could make on children’s lives, that led her to education. “I found out it was my passion, helping kids,” she said.

A stint with a freshman special education class cemented the ambition. The students, all of them boys, initially were reluctant to go along with her hands-on approach to social studies, which included acting out the Constitutional Convention in the role of 18th century statesmen.

“They were really hesitant at first, but by the time I left, they were active and engaged. They participated,” she said.

Seeing that showed Smith her future, she said. She taught social studies and Spanish at Greenup County for four years and then took an administrative position in Fleming County that lasted three years.

As curriculum, instruction and assessment specialist, she worked with teachers but also with children. In her mid-20s at the time, she learned quickly building relationships and earning the trust of veteran teachers were the key to success.

“They didn’t know what to expect of me, but one of my harshest critics when I started was hugging and thanking me at the end of the year,” she said.

Smith is taking that experience to heart with the Fairview staff, which she prefers to call a team. “I feel we are all a team, from teachers to instructional assistants to custodians. At the end of the day we are Fairview Elementary and we are a team.”

She will use one-on-one meetings with all of them to get a picture of what is going well and what needs changing at Fairview.

She is working with the youth service center to schedule and plan a back to school night for parents and students in early August.

Smith is married to GCHS Principal Jason Smith, and has two stepchildren. She is two classes away from earning her Ph.D, in leadership from the University of the Cumberlands.

In addition to her history degree from Marshall, she has a master’s degree in teaching and an educational specialist degree in instructional leadership from Morehead State University.

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Mike James is The Independent's education reporter. He has covered news in Northeast Kentucky since 1996.