By Stephanie Lipcius Palko
Dr. D’Ette Devine’s career in education flourished in Cecil County.
After gaining experience as a teacher, she moved into administration and became Superintendent of schools in 2010.
Dr. Devine refers to the changing challenges in her life as being like acts in a play.
At the end of June, she retires and will be looking for the next act in her life.
The Superintendent grew up in the Elkton area, attending Elkton High School, and said she had great teachers.
“I really loved French in high school and I had a wonderful teacher, Alice Craven, who inspired me,” she said.
Her affinity for languages took her on trips to France. After graduating from University of Maryland, College Park, she intended to move to France, but received job offers from Cecil County schools.
She turned down one opportunity, but received another call in 1976, asking her to work at Perryville High School. One of her first students, Anne Gellrich, now works with her in the Board of Education offices.
After teaching at schools in Perryville and North East for 15 years, she moved into administrative positions in North East, Perryville and Elkton high schools.
Even though she loved teaching, Devine said the move into administration was a natural one for her, noting, “the key was, I always liked a challenge.”
She had learned leadership skills working with the teachers’ association, becoming its president in 1987. Mentors, including Dick Shaffer and Robert Kunkle, also helped her.
Through the decades, education has evolved quite a bit, she said.
“When I started, there was very little in the classroom other than textbooks,” Devine said. Teachers had to come up with lessons plans and enrichment ideas.
“Today we hand teachers more tools,” she said.
But even with more directions and goals given to the teachers of today, Devine said their jobs have become increasingly difficult.
In a world where two-parent families require both to work jobs and an increasing number of single-parent families, Dr. Devine said it is hard for parents to be as involved with the school system. Add the opioid addiction crisis, poverty and other issues and the challenges grow.
“We have between 43 to 45 percent of the students qualifying for free and reduced meals,” Devine said, noting how it is a measure of the poverty in Cecil County.
Working with special needs children also challenges the schools with 14% of the county’s students needing special services.
The schools are charged with meeting the needs of all students, Devine said, explaining that many students cannot begin to thrive in school until their mental health concerns are addressed.
“Mental health services are incredibly expensive,” she said.
In Cecil County, approximately 300 students come to school without knowing how to speak English. Programs need to address those needs.
The school system has to challenge the gifted and talented students plus they have to help all students figure out if their futures include college, technical training, military service or other goals.
Devine said that while some people say the schools could do the same things for the students with less money, she said that viewpoint is mistaken. Advocating within the community has become another job for the school system, she said.
“The biggest challenge today is to provide the variety of supports that students need with the money we receive,” Devine said.
“Now we are faced with a teacher shortage,” Dr. Devine said, explaining that while the state produces 2,400 teachers a year, the state has more than 5,000 job vacancies.
When asked about her accomplishments, the Superintendent could have talked about her own awards, including being named Superintendent of the Year in Maryland. Instead, she said she is proud of the programs started during her tenure and how they have positively impacted students.
“It is the student achievement,” she said. “Their achievement is higher. Special needs students are finishing their program with a higher level of success.”
She noted the higher numbers of students taking college entrance exams and how scores are improving. She noted the state PARC testing and improving scores. More students are staying in school to get a degree.
“We’ve provided programs that let students achieve,” Devine said. “Just student growth in reading and math – we’re moving the needle for student achievement.”
Dr. Devine said she is pleased the Board of Education selected Dr. Jeffrey Lawson to be the new school superintendent.
“He’s going to be awesome,” Devine said, noting that while he is well established in Cecil County’s school administration, he brought outside educational experience from Delaware schools.
Devine said selecting people from within the schools system to lead it has worked well for Cecil County. With Lawson taking over the leadership of the schools, it will make a continuity of only four superintendents during the past 30 years, she said. That stability is not enjoyed by other systems, Devine said, noting that Caroline County has had five superintendents during the past seven years.
Asked what advice she would give to the new Superintendent, Devine said, “Listen. You have to listen and be a voice for the schools. You have to be a presence in the community and, at the end of the day, the answer to any question is what is best for the students. You can’t lose your focus.”
As for her plans in retirement, Devine said she will spend the summer relaxing and traveling, then contemplating what she wants in the next act in her life.
“I have appreciated the community,” Dr. Devine said. “It was certainly an honor to work here. I never wanted to work anywhere else.”