A favorite quote can tell you a lot about a person’s character. Dr. Robert Downs, superintendent of Buford City Schools, believes as Coach Lou Holtz did that “There is never a wrong time to do the right thing,” and this is how he lives his life.
Growing up in Solon, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland with two older brothers and two younger sisters, it is no surprise that Downs’ demeanor is calm and assured with an easy sense of humor. The middle child of five, his favorite childhood memories epitomize the life of a young boy growing up in the 1970s — playing outside with friends, exploring the woods, and riding bikes. In high school, Downs played soccer, ran track, and played football. As he is quick to clarify, “There was a definite emphasis on soccer and track. When the football coaches saw me play soccer they said, well maybe he can kick a football. It turns out, I couldn’t. But I was fast, so I got to play on the kick-off return team.”
Downs met his wife, Melissa Bolyard, during track practice at Solon High School. Shortly after they met, his father was asked to join the newly opened Glidden Paint plant in Oakwood, Georgia. The family traded the midwest for the south and settled in Chestnut Mountain. Two years later, Bolyard invited Downs to a family wedding. That date led to a relationship that has withstood the test of distance and time. States apart, Bolyard earned a bachelor’s of science in nursing from the University of Toledo while Downs earned a bachelor’s of social sciences in education from the University of Georgia.
After graduation, Bolyard and Downs married. Bolyard-Downs was offered a nursing position at Johns Hopkins Hospital and the couple settled in Baltimore. Teaching jobs were hard to come by at the time, but after a brief stint with Eastern Airlines and a long-term substitute position, Downs was offered a job at Catonsville High School. It was here that he taught history and coached soccer and track.
The couple became parents during this time and both pursued masters degrees at the University of West Georgia. Bolyard-Downs earned an MSN in nursing education while Downs earned a master’s degree in instructional technology and an EdS in educational/instructional technology. Later, Downs went on to earn his doctorate of education in educational leadership at Lincoln Memorial University.
Committed to a lifelong partnership, they celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary in August. When asked if there is a secret to a long happy marriage, Downs pondered a moment before sharing the following, “‘Yes Dear’ is the marriage advice that I think is the smartest.” He goes on to say, “Melissa and I enjoy spending time with each other.” With a charming sense of honesty, he continues, “I am a big fan of empty nesting. I love both of my children but I also love spending time with my wife.”
Downs and his daughter Kaitlyn, 27, a trainer for Blackbaud, share a passion for painting. The two have taken art classes together. He admits that Kaitlyn is more talented than he is and proudly says, “We have several of Kaitlyn’s works displayed in our home.” When asked if any of his works are displayed, he smiles and humbly explains, “Yes, we have one that I painted of the house that my wife grew up in. It’s a century home. That’s a nice one.”
Downs describes his son Andrew, 25, as a free spirit who majored in film studies and is currently exploring the world. “Andrew is pursuing a career in the film industry. He has been scuba certified, traveled to South Africa to film a wildlife documentary, and has recently spent a month in Banff, Canada learning how to mountain climb!”
Although the couple did not accompany their son on these adventures, they do love to travel. In celebration of their 25th wedding anniversary, they visited London and both agree it was a trip that they will always remember. Another unforgettable adventure involved skydiving, which he describes as fun but probably not something he will do again. When time allows, the couple would like to visit New Zealand and Australia, but in the meantime, their favorite vacations include beaches and great food. Downs enjoys trying new restaurants and cooking for and with his family. His favorite meal to make is paella. A friend taught him how to make it and his kids bought him a pan and a grill. “Paella,” he says, “is not a meal for two people, it’s a family event.”
It is easy to see that Downs is very proud of his children and his wife, who previously taught at Kennesaw State and recently accepted a position teaching nursing at Georgia Gwinnett College. He is also far more comfortable sharing the accomplishments of his family than he is talking about his own. But, with a little prompting, he says, “Being a high school principal is the hardest job I have ever loved. I am most proud of the impact I have had on other people. I have a file stuffed with cards and letters that I have gotten from people I’ve worked with on my journey. Whenever I need a little boost, I look at the file because it reminds me of the positive impact I have had.” He goes on to say that although being an educator is hard work, knowing that you are making a difference in the lives of future generations is very rewarding.
The district knows that dedicated faculty, staff, and state-of-the-art facilities make a positive impact on student learning. The opening of the new Buford High School will make a huge difference in the lives of current and future students. Downs says, ”The opportunities the new facility provides are impressive. The high school will raise the bar on teaching and learning expectations and provide much-needed space throughout the district.”
When asked how he defines his role as superintendent, Downs emphatically says, “My job is to lead leaders.” The addition of the new high school has brought K-12 change to the district. It’s like a domino effect. Pretty much everyone is starting this school year in a new building. With that in mind, he says, “My first-year goal is to provide our principals with the resources and knowledge they need to manage change in their buildings.”
One such resource is the newly established Buford City School District police force. According to Downs, “A principal’s most important job is the safety of his/her faculty, staff, and students.” Chief Mindy Bayreuther and our three School Resource Officers (SROs) are crucial to the security of our schools. It’s not just about patrolling. It’s about making connections with the kids that will prevent things from happening inside and outside our buildings. If you don’t have a safe learning environment, learning can not take place.”
There is little doubt that learning is taking place at a higher-than-average rate within the district. According to The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement/Georgia School Grades Reports, Buford City School District’s overall performance is higher than 99% of the districts in Georgia and their graduation rate is 93.2%. The pass rate for the AP English Literature and Language Arts classes are significantly higher than the state pass rates. Buford students scored 85.90% on the AP English Lit exam compared to the state’s pass rate of 50.10% and 82.1% on the AP Language Arts exam compared to 57.4%. Michael Poll, vice president of enrollment management services at Georgia Gwinnett College, is impressed with the district’s reputation, graduation rate and their AP Scores, “The higher education community holds the Buford City School District in very high regard. After meeting with Dr. Downs, I believe that equal parts integrity, positivity, and humility are the traits that make him a successful leader. I am confident that under his superintendence, the Buford City School District will grow even stronger.”
When asked what sets Buford apart, Downs credits the K-12 effort that prepares students as well as strong parental and community relationships. He also credits his board and the City of Buford. He says, “The board has been outstanding to work with in making sure that our principals and teachers have what they need to get the job done. The city has made the success of our district a priority and they have worked closely with the board to ensure that we have the resources we need to succeed. It’s a symbiotic relationship that I have not seen elsewhere.”
Downs is excited about the 2019-2020 school year, the students and teachers settling into their new buildings, and the energy that extracurricular activities and sporting events will generate. He says, “Being a Buford Wolf is a K-12 experience. I am looking forward to seeing students of all ages, faculty, staff, and the community come together to support one another. Go Wolves!”