After a 15-year-old student was shot and injured in a bathroom at Magruder High School in Montgomery County, Maryland, Cheryl Dyson reached out to the school’s principal.
Dyson, the associate superintendent for Maryland’s largest school system, was still on leave after her mom’s death at the time. Still, she couldn’t fathom how school leadership felt — her instinct told her to check in.
Set to become the superintendent of Frederick County Public Schools on July 1, Dyson plans to use her desire to build relationships as she gets acclimated to her new role. School Board President Brad Young said last month that Dyson was a “shining star” during the interview process. She is the first African American superintendent in the county’s history.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to show little girls and boys that if you work really hard, you can accomplish great things, and that you don’t accomplish those things in isolation” Dyson said. “It takes a combination of hard work, building really strong relationships, being flexible and open to learning.”
Dyson spent 22 years in the Montgomery County school system, most recently serving as an area associate superintendent overseeing 70 schools. All of her experiences have helped shape her outlook as a leader, she said, but she noted the five years she was principal of Strathmore Elementary School in Silver Spring were pivotal to her development.
In addition to community events, the school hosted “Dream Big Work Hard Saturdays,” during which parents and students would discuss school improvement goals and strategies used.
Overseeing many schools in Montgomery County, Dyson said, helped her determine the best ways to collaborate, like when she scheduled lunch with principals to touch base. But she’s planning to meet with and listen to stakeholders in Frederick to evaluate the community’s needs.
“I do not plan to make FCPS Montgomery County, but I do think there are many skills and strategies and resources that I’ve learned and gained in MCPS that can help FCPS,” Dyson said.
In her first weeks as superintendent, Dyson said she plans to evaluate absenteeism and suspension data. She’s particularly curious about which students get suspended and what schools they attend, information she said she thought about through the application process.
Ensuring students have access to mental health resources and opportunities to reinforce concepts taught during the school year in the summer months are also among Dyson’s priorities.
“I’m going to be doing a lot of listening and a lot of learning,” said Dyson, who also said she’s “still a teacher. I’m still a student.”
The search for a new superintendent in the county came after former superintendent Terry Alban’s departure. That followed a settlement with the Justice Department over the school system’s seclusion-and-restraint practices.
The county, Dyson said, has stopped the seclusions and is committed to following guidelines. A professional development series is also in the works, she said.
“[I] want to assure parents that we are committed to the success of our special education students, and that our interventions are matched to the needs of the students so that as you look at individualized education plans, we can begin to see growth,” Dyson said.
At the school board meeting during which she was appointed, Dyson began to cry as she spoke about her mother, who died in January. Dyson, one of four children but the only girl, said she often watched TV with her mom over the phone.
Her mom was present for every promotion, she said, and would proudly attend board meetings.
Those family values, like love, faith and encouragement, Dyson said, have helped her navigate the challenges of leadership roles.
“It’s the reason why I think that I am so passionate about education work,” Dyson said. “The people that I work with, I care for them deeply. It’s that kind of care that gets you through a COVID, or gets you through yet another difficulty in a school.”