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Cecil County Life

Retiring superintendent has shifted student focus to ‘real world’

May 25, 2018 08:55AM ● By J. Chambless

Dr. D'ette Devine, the Cecil County Public Schools superintendent, with associate superintendents Dr. Carolyn Tiegland and Dr. Jeffrey Dawson.

By Drewe Phinny

After 42 years of service, Dr. D’ette Devine is proud of what she and her co-workers have done to advance education in the Cecil County public school system.

In announcing her retirement as Superintendent of Schools, Devine characterized her career as meaningful and rewarding. “We have an exceptional school system because its people are exceptional,” she said. “Our teachers, leaders and support professionals place the interests of the student first.”

 In a recent interview, Devine stressed the importance of engaging each student according to his or her individual needs and strengths. “What we’re trying to do here is to develop students, assess their skills and their interests and connect them to that next level,” she said. “So whether that’s going through your regular high school STEM, highly rigorous science and math program … and advanced placement courses with your eye on that four-year degree at a prestigious university, or maybe you’ve decided you might want to pursue a certain type of technical program and you want to hone your skills to the next step at a two-year program or tech school, or you might want to graduate with your certification and then apprentice somewhere in the trades.

We’re pretty good at getting them out of high school on time, giving them opportunities to earn industry certifications and get credit for college while in high school, but we have to take that next step and really try to connect the dots for them.”

That’s where the specialized attention comes into play. “I’m talking about students who aren’t necessarily two- or four-year college bound, but more a trade or tech school, or into the world of work or military. Where is their next step so they don’t get out of high school and say, ‘Now what?’”

Devine cited a group of students between 18 and 22 who remain unconnected to the process, and that can result in unemployment. They haven’t finished school, or they did finish without developing real skills. That’s one of the priorities for Devine.

The Cecil County public school system is partnering with Cecil College, and that relationship is one that Devine feels is most important to educational development. “We’re opening our first cohort,” she said. “We refurbished a research design facility on Appleton Road. We bought it and renovated it. The college program we’re getting ready to start is called ‘Early College.’ It will take a cohort of freshmen next fall, at Elkton High School. At the end of their four years, they will achieve a high school diploma and an associate degree from the college in general studies. So it’s an entire program designed to capture a certain type of student, maybe a first-time college-goer, or someone who opts for something other than Ivy League or service academies. There’s a niche of students for whom this will be very helpful. Then, after the associate degree, they can make the next steps to completion of their bachelor’s.”

In praise of Cecil College, and community colleges in general, Devine cited affordability, as well as a solid education, and collaborative opportunities toward a four-year degree. “We have about 21 percent to 24 percent of graduates from each high school headed to Cecil,” she said. “I have a niece who started at Cecil on a scholarship, finished at Salisbury and is currently teaching.” Devine added one more Cecil County family tidbit – the president of Cecil College, Dr. Mary Way Bolt, is her second cousin.

One of the ongoing challenges for educational facilities is to address the ever-changing job market. Devine pointed to what she called the elimination of the middleman. “Think about toll-takers,” she said. “With the advent of EZ Pass, all kinds of people lost their jobs. Even insurance agents now -- there are so many things you can do online. The big-box stores are slowly being squeezed out by all the online shopping.”

She said a futurist, about 15 years ago, predicted the demise of the middleman. Fewer people will be needed to broker services, because consumers will get them directly. “And now we’re living that today,” Devine said. “So what we have to do is to figure out what jobs are out there and how we train out kids. We have connections with Mary [Bolt] at the college, and they can either go straight into the workforce or get more training.”

As far as an approach to discipline, Devine said, “We teach critical thinking. So a teacher should be able to present two sides of an issue and have students try to figure out where they are on that continuum.”

Against the background of recent school violence on a national scale, CCPS started with a student dialogue. The social studies coordinator prepared a lesson which was given to all high schoolers. The exercise addressed both sides of the gun issue in a broader context of school safety.

We allowed kids to debate it, read about it, study it and confront it, but teachers took no position,” Devine said. “You can’t, because Cecil County is a very divided place on both sides of that issue. We teach you how to think and draw your own conclusions … That’s our role.”

In Cecil County, there is a comprehensive safe schools policy that has been in place since the middle 1990s. “We enjoy another great partnership with Scott Adams and the Sherriff’s Department here,” Devine said. “We are prepared to the extent we can be. Our schools have been locked for over 12 years. About a third of the schools have a secured entrance with a double lock system, so you have to go through the office. That’s in nine schools, and we’re doing four more this spring. Eventually, all schools will have that double lock.”

That comes with a price tag of $250,000. A comprehensive steering committee of all the county agencies has met three times since the Parkland, Fla., tragedy to assess any vulnerabilities.

We’re going to replace all security cameras in high schools,” Devine said. “We’ve gone to the active shooter drill, whereby, if you get into a situation like Parkland, you run, you disrupt. It’s a very different thing than the old lockdown, hide under your desk kind of thing we used to do. So we’re very progressive and we continue to monitor and make changes when necessary.”

On a different note, Devine praised today’s students for their altruism. “I would say this particular generation has a very big heart for service, in a way that perhaps my generation did not as effectively do, or maybe some of the in-between generations did not,” she said. “But we’re finding that in our schools, there are a lot of students who are very interested in helping others and they really want to give back to their community. They’re interested maybe in politics and in things they believe might change the world.”

As retirement draws near, Devine displays a humility about her career, and she is quick to give credit to co-workers who were instrumental in her accomplishments.

I think we’ve done tremendous things,” she said. “I would credit my staff, our principals, supervisors and coordinators, and our teachers. We have a dedicated workforce here. I’m also proud of our leadership and our support services teams who do the other things, such as transportation, food and nutrition.”

Devine spoke fondly of “that close family kind of culture. We all work together for the greater good. We care about one another. I hope one of the legacies I leave is that this is a system that cares about children at its core, but we also care about everybody as a team of folks who are our CCPS family.”

So what’s next? “Well, after 42 tears, I’ve done pretty much everything,” Devine said. “I taught college courses. I’m currently president of the Public School Superintendents of Maryland. And it is really time to focus on re-reading my classics. My sister gave me all the Jane Austen books, so I’ll start with some of those … Just sort of doing some things I enjoy.”

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