Utah Schools Superintendent Steers System Roiled by Pandemic: Sydnee Dickson '92, '07
Sydnee Dickson, Utah’s state superintendent of public instruction since 2016, was busy as 2019 became 2020. Besides her regular duties—shaping educational policy, working to boost school performance, and more—Dickson had embarked on a four-year “listening tour” to spend time in all 41 Utah school districts and many charter schools.
“I love being in classrooms with teachers and students, . . . watching the great things that happen when educators build respectful and caring relationships with their students and know their content and teach it well,” said Dickson. But then the COVID-19 pandemic took over the world.
She stood with Utah governor Gary Herbert on March 13 as he announced a “soft closure” of all Utah schools. Since then Dickson has worked as a leader, helping form best practices on the go as the crisis has evolved, and as a bridge, bringing Utah’s leadership, lawmakers, districts, parents, and students together.
Dickson agonized over balancing public health imperatives with the academic and social/emotional needs of students, particularly those already struggling with social/emotional challenges, disabilities, or a lack of English-language proficiency. Her staff has been busy providing multiple resources and possibilities that might work for districts: transitioning students into new teachers, pairing technologically adept teachers with those less savvy, equalizing student access to technology, and ensuring that schools have personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff and also contingency plans for their use.
It is a new world in which change will be the norm for some time. Luckily for Utah, Dickson handles these challenges just as she handles the rest of her job: remembering her mission to “elevate educational opportunities for every student.” That is as important in a pandemic as ever.
A Sisterhood of Service to Schools: Luana Searle '67, '71, '84; Carol Robinson '58
Luana Searle and Carol Robinson are two sisters whose lives are entwined in education. Searle, 90, and Robinson, 85, have only recently eased off from working after having spent most of their lives in the Utah education system.
The sisters grew up in American Fork, Utah, in a family with deep roots in Utah education. Both married men named Kent, both earned bachelor’s degrees in education at BYU, and both taught at Greenwood Elementary, which was named after their great-great-grandfather William Greenwood, the first teacher in American Fork.
Ten years into Searle’s six-decade career, the superintendent of Utah’s Alpine School District contacted her about a principal job—a request that puzzled her, as female principals were uncommon at the time. Accepting this role not only propelled Searle’s career forward—she gradually moved into full-time administration, earning her master’s and doctoral degrees from BYU—but also paved the way for more women to enter educational leadership.
Robinson earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary instruction in 1958 and then spent 45 years teaching kindergarten in Alabama, Washington, and Utah. She retired, but her passion for teaching soon drew her back to the classroom. She worked for 13 years as a substitute teacher, connecting with students in every grade. “After having been through World War II, I could talk to sixth graders about rationing tires,” said Robinson. “They couldn’t believe that that was possible.” She retired, again, less than five years ago.
Back in Alpine, Searle moved to the district level, finding ways to put more students in available buildings by implementing year-round and extended-day programs. She was promoted to assistant superintendent of elementary education. After a distinguished career, Searle retired, but that didn’t last long. Months later she was persuaded to serve as executive director of the Utah Association of Elementary School Principals. She planned to work one more year but ended up staying for 22 years. She also served as chair of the American Fork City Hospital Board and as a member of the boards of Utah Valley Hospital and Intermountain Healthcare.
Searle joined her sister in retirement “for good” only two years ago, but she has continued managing a real estate business. Searle and Robinson still love education, watching with interest as the field evolves. Robinson’s advice for education majors is to always be in the “kids business. . . . It’s all about them.”
Both Carol Robinson and Luana Searle love hearing from former coworkers and students. They are what kept Searle going—and leading—for all those years. “I love people, and I love working with people,” she said. “Knowing that you make a little bit of a difference in their lives is the best.”
Because of an EdD Flyer and a BYU Sweatshirt: Jim Grover '77
In 1977 missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints knocked on the door of an unassuming house in Northridge, California. When the door opened, they were surprised to see a man wearing a BYU sweatshirt. “We didn’t realize there were members of the Church at this house!” the missionaries exclaimed.
“Oh no, I’m Roman Catholic,” said Jim Grover. It was true. Grover was not a member of the Church but had attended BYU and was a McKay School alumnus.
Bound for BYU
Education was destined to be part of Jim’s life. “I liked to be around people and kids,” said Jim, who taught fifth grade in Chatsworth, California, at the Superior Street School, where he met his wife, Jan, a second-grade teacher.
Jim became a vice principal and pursued a doctoral degree in education administration at the University of Southern California—a long commute combined with challenging night classes, a growing family, and a full-time job. Jim was tired. “Fortunately,” said Jan, “a piece of mail came [featuring] a mountain with a Y on it.” The flyer advertised a summer EdD program at BYU. The Grovers decided to go for it, despite no knowledge of BYU. In 1975 they packed their kids—Julie (5) and Jeff (2)—into the car and joined 24 other students in the summer program.
“It was a fantastic program,” Jim said. “BYU professors are like USC professors, but with the Mormon glow.” Living in Provo at the Campus Plaza apartments, taking trips to the “magical” Deseret Industries store, and interacting daily with the kind students, Jan decided that she wanted her kids to go to BYU someday.
Launching a Legacy
When the missionaries stumbled across the Grover family in Northridge, it seemed meant to be, but for two years nothing much happened. Jim was busy writing his dissertation and Jan was busy with growing kids. The family attended Church meetings but also visited other churches. Jim decided it was time to pull the plug on the sporadic missionary teaching.
On the missionaries’ next visit, Jan recalled: “[The missionaries] just started right out. They said, ‘Well, Brother Grover, we think you are ready to make a baptismal commitment.’ Jim hadn’t said anything yet about them not coming back, so I just sat there waiting for him to blast ’em. Then he said, ‘Well, I think you are right.’” On March 8, 1980, Jim, Jan, and nine-year-old Julie were baptized. “It was the best thing we ever did besides get married,” said Jim. In 1982 the family was sealed in the Los Angeles California Temple.
Jan’s dream for her children to go to BYU became a reality. Following their father’s example, Julie was a McKay School graduate in communication disorders, and Jeff graduated from BYU with a degree in Spanish teaching. It started with a flyer and continued with a sweatshirt. The spirit of the Y has become a Grover family legacy.
Writers: Stacey Kratz, Sariah Farmer, Hannah Mortenson