He has seen two local school districts through curriculum changes and budget challenges.
He has welcomed teachers and expanded enrollment.
And he has spent each day focused on what he says matters most: the kids.
But in about two weeks, after more than 41 years in Indiana public education, Steve Yager plans to kick back, play some golf and spend time with loved ones.
Yager, 63, has served as superintendent of Southwest Allen County Schools since 2009. He will retire June 30.
He will be replaced by SACS Associate Superintendent Philip Downs.
“There have been challenges, sure, and difficult decisions,” Yager said. “But the biggest thing has been just making sure that every day, in every way, we don’t disappoint students, parents, patrons, teachers, classified groups, board members or anyone else.”
Yager also served as Northwest Allen County Schools superintendent from 1990 to 2009.
When former SACS Superintendent Brian Smith left, Yager was asked to suggest new leaders for the district.
“I hadn’t really thought about myself as a candidate, but at the end of a phone conversation I was having with a member of the (SACS) school board, I blurted out, ‘Would you be interested in talking to one more?’ The conversation led to me, and the rest is history,” Yager said.
Superintendent Chris Himsel stepped in to fill Yager’s position at NACS.
“While Steve was here, he oversaw a tremendous amount of growth. When he began, Northwest only had five schools at the time,” Himsel said.
Enrollment grew from about 2,700 students districtwide in 1990 to nearly 6,200 students in 2009, he said.
Under Yager’s leadership, the district added several schools, renovated others and brought the district from a smaller rural county school system to one that was known for high achievement, Himsel said.
“All I’ve done is maintain and continue the precedence and legacy that he created,” Himsel said.
Before to his tenure at NACS, Yager was principal of Carroll Junior High School, assistant principal of Paoli High School in southern Indiana and a counselor at Norwell High School in Ossian.
“My evolution from classroom teacher to superintendent was pretty typical,” he said. “I bounced from classroom teacher to counselor, assistant principal to principal, principal to central office to superintendent, and it all occurred because I felt like I was in the right place at the right time with the right people.”
Justin Peeper, chairman of the Department of World and Classical Languages and a Spanish teacher at Homestead High School, has witnessed Yager’s leadership since Yager joined the district.
“Dr. Yager has been a great leader for Southwest Allen County Schools,” Peeper said in an email. “He has helped take our school district to the next level. From my observations, he has always been highly motivated, he sees the big picture, he’s a good listener and he has been very loyal to SACS and the students and parents.
“He’s enthusiastic and supportive, and he puts kids first when making any decision.”
Peeper said Yager looks for ways to improve curriculum, instruction and assessment.
“Dr. Yager always encourages us to be better tomorrow than we were today, and that is one of the things I most admire about his leadership,” he said.
Others say Yager’s leadership differs from the greatness some describe.
In 2013, Laura Farner, a former SACS teacher, sued the district, accusing officials of forcing her to resign and defaming her by telling others she fostered cheating on the ISTEP+ tests.
A settlement appears to have been reached in mediation, according to court documents filed in May.
This month, Homestead High School tennis coach Jim Shull told The Journal Gazette he had been fired without explanation.
“I also believe the principal and athletic director did not initiate this,” Shull said. “The superintendent has done this, and he is not going to tell me why.”
District leaders, including Yager, declined to comment on personnel issues.
Others, who cited fear of retribution in declining to provide their names, said they have seen a side of Yager’s leadership that Shull and Farner describe.
Yager said serving a district with many teachers, staff members and parents with different points of views is a challenge, but he hopes all will agree that his legacy is in his commitment to education.
“Maybe they would say, ‘He doesn’t understand what happens every day in the classroom,’ and I would be the first to say I don’t – classrooms have changed,” Yager said.
The profession of teaching has also changed, he added.
“It’s a tough, tough profession,” he said. “You have to make sure that teachers know how much you appreciate their work and their efforts, and if I had to criticize myself, I would say I don’t do enough of that. I don’t tell teachers often enough how great they are.”
Yager’s peers at other local districts say he’s served his community well.
“He empowers those who work for him,” East Allen County Schools Superintendent Ken Folks said. “You don’t work for him, he works with you.”
Fort Wayne Community Schools Superintendent Wendy Robinson said she has worked closely with Yager for the past decade but was aware of his leadership and legacy long before.
“He’s influenced two separate districts in this county, and that’s unique,” Robinson said. “With his help, we’ve united four very different school districts, and all have benefited from the partnership.”
Yager was also tapped to co-chair a panel with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz to review the state’s A-F accountability system.
SACS school board President John Blum said Yager’s role on the panel has encapsulated his career in terms of the kind of person he is.
“The integrity the guy brings to the table is outstanding,” Blum said. “ … He’s able to lead a discussion like that at the state level, but also trusted enough to be a leader as well.”
The 17-member panel, co-chaired by Ritz and Yager, will continue to meet through November when leaders are expected to make a recommendation to the State Board of Education.
And once the panel has submitted a recommendation, Yager said he will return to his retirement plans.
“My immediate goal is to play enough golf until I’m sick of it,” Yager said.
He and his wife, Jan, have 11 grandchildren whom they are looking forward to spoiling. He and his wife have been married for 42 years.
“Education leadership is a 24/7 position. It’s a lifestyle choice. And I don’t regret the fact that I chose this – I’m so thankful,” Yager said. “I signed up for this, which helps me to remember that I’ve served here for boys and girls. Bottom line, every day, boys and girls.”