DOVER — Smyrna School District superintendent Deborah Wicks announced her retirement in December. As of June 30, she’ll be capping off a career that’s been a lifelong endeavor.
Ms. Wicks turns 71 years old in March, about 40 of those will have been spent in service to the district. Starting her career back in 1967, she spent a year as an educable mentally handicapped teacher at Clayton Elementary School, 16 years as a special education teacher at Smyrna High School, 4 years as an associate principal for Clayton Elementary School and the last 19 as the district’s superintendent.
Representing the fourth generation of her family living in Smyrna, she was a district student herself long before becoming its primary overseer. Her husband, George, was actually her high school sweetheart. With Mr. Wicks, she built a family of three children and nine grandchildren — many of whom stayed local and represent the fifth and sixth generations of her family to do so. So, in one way or another, Ms. Wicks’s entire life has revolved around the Smyrna School District.
When Ms. Wicks took the top seat in the district, she recalls that the population in the area was starting to grow quickly and up until that point, it was coping with that growth by adding trailers that functioned as temporary classrooms.
“We had about 16 of them, some of them were actually old construction trailers,” she said. “It wasn’t a great situation.”
Resolving to change that as soon as possible, she started with the Smyrna Middle School.
“We hadn’t built a new school for 30 years at that point,” Ms. Wicks said.
Six referendums later, the district has built several new schools, made many upgrades and updates to facilities and infrastructure and, crucially, done away with trailers.
“We also took special pains to ensure that we designed our projects in a way that they could be reconfigured later to accommodate growth which is coming again,” she said.
According to the 2016 state of the district report, it now serves 5,233 students. The staff consists of 712 employees, 377 educational staff, 16 specialists, 31 administrators, 12 guidance counselors, 36 secretaries, 60 custodians, 88 child nutrition employees, 68 paraprofessionals, seven psychologists, nine nurses, seven software technologists, one grant writer, eight cows and one guidance dog named Frank. The district has eight schools in full operation and a school board that includes five members and one student representative.
Ms. Wicks decided to retire mostly because she’s starting to feel the call of a few personal projects that she’s put on the back burners over the years.
“Back when I was watching the presidential campaigns with both candidates close to 70, I wondered if I might be retiring too soon,” she joked. “But realistically, I have a few projects like working on a family history that I’d like to start, and I didn’t want to work up to a point where I wasn’t healthy enough to do anything after retirement.”
Thankful that she still has her health, she says that she’ll probably take a full year to adjust to retired life, and then stay open to being involved with the district thereafter.
At this point, there isn’t a successor in the wings just yet, she said, but the school board, which will be responsible for the appointment is currently refining the superintendent policy. Apparently, Ms. Wicks has held the position so long that some of the terms in the policy were outdated.
“There are just some small changes, for instance it used to be the Department of Public Instruction, now it’s the Department of Education,” she said. “The job posting will go out in mid-February and will be circulated widely.”
The advice Ms. Wicks has for her would-be replacement is: “Be the only spokesman for your district” and she notes that the district is growing again and will need to be ready to add capacity. She said that the rising local population and resuming of various housing development projects are likely indicators that the school district’s needs are about to increase again.
“The development across the street from Clayton Intermediate School, our newest school, went broke in the middle of construction a few years ago,” said Ms. Wicks. “Now someone else bought it and construction has started again — it’s a huge development too.”
An accomplishment of her career that she’s exceedingly proud of is one Ms. Wicks sowed the seeds for in her first year as a superintendent.
“I wanted to make sure that students who graduated from Smyrna and attended the district, knew what we stood for,” she said. “So in my first year I set up a community committee that came together over three or four months to select a list of values.”
Out of the large list the committee built, they selected five values to assign to the district: integrity, compassion, perseverance, respect and responsibility. The district spent the first year educating staff and students about the values. Every year since then, they’ve cycled through the values individually and had all the students in the district participate in an essay contest based on a given value.
“For instance, what does perseverance mean to you?” said Ms. Wicks. “To a second grader, perseverance might be learning to ride your bike. For every grade, there are winners of the contest. It has been a great way to get everyone talking about these important values.”
Students can hardly walk down any district hallways, no matter the building, without running into the values up on banners or posters and sometimes even painted in entryways.
“The Smyrna and Clayton town councils adopted it to, so it’s become a community thing too,” said Ms. Wicks.
The accompanying celebration of the essay contest winners has come to be known as I Love the Smyrna School District Day. The event, which is set for the fourth Saturday of February every year, had humble beginnings, but it has since ballooned into an event that attracts nearly 7,000 people to Smyrna High School.
“The mayor, governors, congressmen and legislators have all come too,” she said. “It really unites the district. We all come together to celebrate our values.”
Over her career, Ms. Wicks feels the most important lesson she’s learned is to have passion in your job, and to avoid becoming jaded by believing in the power of positive thinking. This is something that she admits isn’t always easy.
“There’s not any bad parts of the job, but some things are hard,” she said. “We’ve had a few arrests over the years, and just seeing anyone who would do anything to hurt any of the student — well, it’s very difficult to see.”
Opposite that, her passion for the work has been fed by the good parts of the job.
“Working with such a great community, staff and students makes it all worth it,” Ms. Wicks said. “Essentially everything we’ve accomplished has been a product of teamwork.”
She feels that many of the extensive upgrades, updates and building projects that she’s helped take to term succeeded in part due to the level of cooperation she’s maintained with the school board.
“School boards can often be the downfall of a superintendent, luckily I’ve had such caring, wonderful people to work with,” she said. “I’ve been lucky.”
After taking some time with her personal projects in retirement, Ms. Wicks says that she’d be happy to be an adviser to the district, should they need assistance.
“I’ve grown up here, I live here and my children are here. I’m not going anywhere. I will remain active in whatever capacity the school district wants me to,” she said. “My door is always open to this district — I really do love it.”
Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at firstname.lastname@example.org