Girl Power Part 4: Buffalo Public Schools' Cecelie Owens

Mar 23, 2020

Despite the advancements delivered by Title IX legislation over the last 50 years, girls still participate in sports less than boys, and the disparity widens with the pressures of adulthood. Why does it matter? Because kids who compete do better in school, at work and throughout life. So WBFO's Marian Hetherly took a look at leveling the playing field in a series she's calling "Girl Power."

This semester, the dynamic principal of West Hertel Academy was promoted to Assistant Superintendent of Physical Education, Health and Athletics for Buffalo Public Schools. Less than two months into the job, she sat down with WBFO to discuss her plans for the job.

"It's about kids. If we're not doing this job for kids, then then we're not doing the job," she said. "The game plan doesn't change. You just have to get people to buy into it."

Cecelie Owens is a true home girl. She grew up in downtown public housing, is a product of city schools and was always playing basketball - at the JFK Community Center or wherever. But she called herself a "late bloomer."

"It took me a while to really understand the game of basketball. Young people, you know, you're good, you might score 50 points a game, 40, but do you really know the game? Do you really know every encounter that you experience on that court, with your teammates with your coach? One day, the light bulb went on and everything made sense. That's when I started to excel in the game of basketball," Owens said.

She became a star player at South Park High School and later the first African American women inducted into the Hall of Fame at Buffalo State College, where she set 19 records in the women's basketball program. Owens said playing sports teaches a lot of skills needed to be successful in life.

"It all makes sense. Every challenge, every barrier, every struggle, every test, every disappointment led me to where I am now. Everything matters to your success," Owen said. "I encourage people to embrace it all: the good, the bad, the different, the disappointments. All of that matters. It molds you into a leader. Everyone's a leader in something. It molds you and prepares you for the next level of your life."

Talking with Owens, it is easy to feel her intensity and sports metaphors. She is very competitive and used to winning. Owens wants to infuse that kind of personal spirit throughout the district.

"I'm excited about the work. And the vision is clear, it's simple. It's going to take time. It's going to take patience and flexibility, but we can do it. This is a great district with tons of great people, faculty and staff, students and parents," she said.

Owens said a game plan focused on the social-emotional needs of youngsters worked for her, countless others of her friends and family members, and at community schools like West Hertel Academy. That will be her same strategy as Assistant Superintendent.

"If a kid has the ability to want to run and jump and play, we need to make sure they have the opportunity and the access to fields, the courts and the gyms and community centers and the swimming pools and the parks," she said. "Girls are girls, boys are boys. We have different needs based on our genders. However, there still needs to be equity in a lot of areas, to improve their overall quality of life."

And Owens doesn't just talk the talk. In 2007, she started her own nonprofit foundation to improve the quality of life for young people. It is called GIRLS, which stands for Goals, Integrity, Respect, Leadership and Sports. It includes a monthly mentoring plan and summer league, and earned her an "Everyday Hero" award from ESPN.

"I started with the basketball clinic. Ninety girls came on April 14 in 2007. That's when I knew there was a need. And we've been going strong ever since," she said. "The girls are out there. They're everywhere. And they're very talented and they're very skilled."

Owens sees herself as a gatekeeper, a door opener. She said it is the community's responsibilty to tap into those girls and get them to the table.

"There's been many times I'm driving around Buffalo and I'll see a young lady out dribbling a basketball. So I pull over and I have a conversation with her. 'Hey, how you doing? You play ball?' I introduce myself, tell her about the GIRLS Sports Foundation. I ask her what school she goes to. Make her feel confortable," she said.

"I've been showing up at community forums and listening and stating the facts for Buffalo Public Schools," she said. "I love talking to people and collaborating and looking at a challenge or a barrier and coming up with the solution together."

Owens said she feels "blessed" to be given the opportunity of Assistant Superintendent and is excited to "hone in" on what a student athlete looks like.

"How do we get our students ready for college? How do we provide competitive sports settings for the Buffalo Public School kids? How do we make sure we have highly qualified coaches? You know, those are some of the goals that we're working on," she said.

"And I want to let the community to know that it's about working together - and there's no 'I' in team," Owens said. "So just looking to change the narrative, and to reimagine what athletics and physical education looks like in the Buffalo Public School district."