story by Brittany Ransom
After more than four decades in public education and administration, Van Buren Superintendent of Schools Dr. Merle Dickerson hung up his proverbial educator's hat last month and headed off into the world of retirement.
"My decision was made in April. I have an old friend, who is also retiring this year, who has told me that you will know when it’s time to retire. I always thought that would be good to know," joked Dickerson. "In April of this year, I just felt the need to move on to something else … another chapter in our lives. It just felt that that it was my time."
Dickerson spent the past 13 years as head of VBSD, coming to the district in 2001. Prior to his role at Van Buren, he served 14 years as a band director, three years as a counselor, nine years as a principal, and four years as superintendent at other Districts throughout the state.
During his district tenure, the school and community experienced significant change and growth. From building projects to grade restructuring, Dickerson helped navigate VBSD through each step, rounding out his long-career with a great sense of accomplishment and many fond memories.
ACHIEVEMENTS AND RECONFIGURATION
Always with an eye on the classroom, Dickerson believes one of the district's greatest successes has been its commitment to hiring and developing educators.
"Our efforts in the classroom, in building successful students and challenging teachers to become better themselves, is something that is derived from research that has convinced us that the most important school related influence on the child was based on the quality of the teacher," said Dickerson. "We’ve challenged our teachers to challenge themselves so our kids could learn more and better from great teaching by great teachers."
As part of its plan to best equip its teachers and to ease some of the often difficult transitions for students between schools, the district opted to restructure its grade levels beginning in the 2012-2013 school year. Dickerson believes the move was a great step forward for the District.
"Perhaps our best move was the reconfiguration of the grades," said Dickerson. "Over the course of two years of study, we recommended a change in reconfiguration that would assure our students fewer transitions from one school building to another. We were able to make that shift with the help all our teachers and staff as well as a very connected group of parents who determined that if it was the right thing to do for our kids, we had to figure out a way to make that change."
The process included the move of grade five to elementary schools, making them K-5 buildings. The former Central Middle School was changed to an elementary campus, while the Northridge Middle School, which previously housed grades 5-6, and Butterfield Junior High School, were converted to 6-8 grade buildings. The former Coleman Junior High School was made an extension of the Van Buren High School campus, becoming home to all 9th graders and being renamed the Coleman Freshman Academy. Grades 10-12 remain on the VBHS campus.
Perhaps the most notable change over the past decade, aside from the grade reconfiguration, has been the number of facility upgrades. The district made renovations and additions at several campuses, including the expansion of Van Buren High School and the construction of a new basketball arena and Fine Arts Center. Several FEMA-standard storm shelters were also added to a number of campuses.
The district also demolished and rebuilt King Elementary School, using primarily environmentally-conscience technologies. Since opening, the building has been awarded several "green" honors, including being named the first Gold certified LEED for Schools project in Arkansas by the U.S. Green Building Council.
"I have been very proud of our facilities progress in the last 13 years," Dickerson said. "Our community has been able to make significant strides in providing funding for facilities space. All of our schools have been upgraded to some extent in the past 12 years with our most significant work at Van Buren High School, Butterfield, the Freshman Academy, King Elementary School – and all the remaining buildings have had some additional space added or upgraded in some fashion."
Renovations were also completed at the district's Blakemore Field, as well a complete relocation of VBSD's Transportation, Child Nutrition, and Maintenance operations to facilities located in Industrial Park.
"The facility changes have made a big difference in our community," said Dickerson. "I’m so proud of Van Buren for supporting our kids in that fashion."
CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES
Despite the constant changes and obstacles today's schools face, Dickerson believes the future holds great promise for students and teachers.
"I think the future is an 'open door' for educators," said Dickerson. “I expect many things to change in this world and every change will have an effect on our schools. I expect we will see more opportunities for our kids, more decisions for our parents, more opportunities for parents to decide on what their children need, etc.”
Dickerson acknowledges that said "opportunities" may well extend beyond the traditional brick and mortar public school building.
"All we have to do is look around and see all the options children and parents have in the world of technology — many states now offer children online schooling. The old days of 'a school in every town' are gone. Now our kids have opportunities to graduate early, get specialized training, and go to work," explained Dickerson. "These opportunities should not threaten public schools. But public schools must consider the needs of our children ‘first’ in planning for the next five to ten years. The traditional public school will not be the only option for parents and students — our job should be to deliver to our kids and parents what they want and need in schooling."
COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT, IMPACT
As with any community, the role schools play in the development and success of an area is undeniable. Dickerson understood this as Superintendent by serving on boards and working with other entities to help move the city forward.
"As a community leader, Dr. Dickerson understood the important role that a school district has in driving economic development," said Jackie Krutsch, executive director of the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce. "Great performing schools lead to growing communities. People move to a community that puts children first, that is cutting edge, and creative in meeting the needs of all of their students. Dr. Dickerson served as a member of the Van Buren Chamber Board of Directors and was engaged in dialogue with the business community."
Dickerson also worked closely with chamber and city officials to help prepare students from a young age to think ahead in terms of college and employment.
"He understood that business leaders need great students to become great employees,” added Krutsch. "He also understood that the business community's interaction with students could have a tremendous impact on their future. He championed the Arkansas Scholars Program that has continued to grow with more and more students completing all of the requirements of that four-year program.”
As far as his plans for retirement, Dickerson is simply looking forward to the next chapter for he and his wife, Paula.
"You just come to 'know' it is time to make a change. We will take some time to rest and I think we’ll find our niche in the next season of our lives."
Upon reflection, Dickerson can rattle off a long list of fond memories he has from his 40-plus years in education, from those of his own children attending school to witnessing the simple joy of watching kids succeed in a class or on an assignment.
"I have memories of my own students on trips and teachers walking out of school at the end of the day tired, yet smiling that smile that tells me that had a good day with their kids. The fond memories don’t have to be monumental occasions — they can be a hug and thanks from a student, an invitation to see what they’re doing, and just the knowledge that we’re doing our best for our kids. I have 41 years of those special memories and they will be a blessing to Paula and I as we consider our next adventure."