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Martha D. Dean

A Model for the Wannabees (Few As They Are) by Jay Goldman


Martha Dean sometimes feels like a lonely fighter in the war against discouragement. The dispirited feelings aren’t her own, but those of the next generation in line to lead public schools. Most have little interest in that prospect.

That troubles Dean, who has committed 16 years to the superintendency of two school districts in West Virginia, the past eight in 3,800-student Wetzel County. So she has made it a point to accept semester-long teaching assignments at West Virginia University, where she can stand before teachers and lower-level administrators as a breathing tribute to the notion that one leader can make a difference for many. She also grooms new administrators in her own district and occasionally serves as a mentor to those new to the superintendency in the Mountaineer State.

"I want to be a resource," Dean says. "I feel strongly about top-level positions."

By several accounts, she is an excellent role model. Larry Martin, president of the Wetzel County school board, says, "I’ve seen her handle herself in the most difficult situations and she never seems to be caught off-guard."

That doesn’t mean Dean, who grew up on the Ohio-West Virginia border not far from where she now works, always falls back on the true and tested. "She’s not afraid of trying something different," adds Martin.

Dean and her school system have bucked one recent fashion by steadfastly maintaining four small high schools, none enrolling more than 550 students, rather than consolidating them for fiscal efficiencies as most counties in West Virginia have done. While conceding the financial strain, the superintendent says, "We try to accentuate the positive impact of schools where all teachers know all students."

A masterful grants writer, Dean has attracted enough outside support to keep full curricular offerings at all four schools. This is most evident at Hundred High School, the smallest of the secondary schools with 170 students and the school serving the most remote and poorest population. She attracted more than $300,000 in state and federal support, allowing the school two years ago to become the first in West Virginia to join the NetSchools Project, which puts a laptop computer in the hands of every student and faculty member full-time.

Careful to promote the laptops as a tool, Dean ensured all staff members had a week of summer training and ongoing support during the school year on integrating the technology into instruction. While the effects on student learning have yet to be documented, she says some 90 percent of the participants report using the laptops daily for some school-related purpose.

Linda Dunn, who has served with the superintendent on state and regional task forces as president of nearby West Virginia Northern Community College, says she can easily see how Dean’s leadership would appeal to funders. "She’s innovative and very committed, especially when it comes to use of technology," Dunn says.

The college president admits she emulates her colleague’s diplomatic skills. "She’s quite a statesman in the way she positions questions and states a consensus viewpoint. She has a way of … summarizing people’s positions, including their negative positions. She has a gift for inclusion," she adds.

Dean’s patience was put to a supreme test for the better part of the 1998-99 school year and the start of this year as parents of two special-needs students bitterly protested the placement of their adolescent children in a county school outside their neighborhood that the district determined was better suited to deal with their disabilities. The persistence of the parents and their legal advisers led to public displays at the twice-a-month board meetings under the glare of TV cameras.

The superintendent, though supported in her stance throughout by a four-fifths majority of the school board, largely avoided public comment on the raging controversy owing to confidentiality rules and the threat of litigation. By the time hearing officers found in the school district’s favor, Dean was feeling bruised.

"You can be right and still held up to public ridicule," she says.

A local newspaper reporter who followed the year-long controversy noted: "It was clear the well-being of students was of utmost importance to her." Adds Martin, the board president: "Sometimes what students need and what parents want is not the same thing."

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org