Superintendent Debbie Wicks' career in the Smyrna School District started 50 years ago in 1967, included a 10-year hiatus while raising her family, and ended on Friday. However, her colleagues said her contributions will have an impact for generations to come.
Superintendent Debbie Wicks’ career in the Smyrna School District started 50 years ago in 1967, included a 10-year hiatus while raising her family, and ended on Friday. However, her colleagues said her contributions will have an impact for generations to come.
Board of Education members and her co-workers said the visible footprint she left on the district has been amazing with her supervision of the construction of three new schools and renovations at the other schools during her 19 years as superintendent while district enrollment doubled from about 2,500 to over 5,000 students.
“She was involved in every facet of those buildings. She worked tirelessly on those construction projects and those designs,” said Ron Eby, who worked as assistant superintendent with Wicks and then served 10 years on the Smyrna Board of Education. “She wanted our students and staff to have the best.”
Those buildings also represent district residents who were willing to vote for tax increases to fund the projects.
Fostering that school spirit and community spirit is what her colleagues said has been her most significant contribution.
“She has such commitment, energy and compassion that I never saw in anyone else,” said Eby.
Wicks’ administrative assistant Patrice Scuse said, “She lived the district’s core values of compassion, perseverance, responsibility, integrity and respect and was an excellent role model to our students and staff.”
The district’s core values are among the first items Wicks worked on when she became superintendent.
“We have to say to students what we stand for,” Wicks said. “When I became superintendent, we formed a committee of staff and district residents to develop our core values.”
The five core values – compassion, integrity, perseverance, respect and responsibility – are now well-known to staff and students and familiar to most parents and many community members.
“They are not just Smyrna School District values. They’ve been endorsed by the Smyrna Town Council and the Clayton Town Council,” said Wicks. “They’re community values.”
Showing the ‘love’
Students are asked each year to write an essay for the district contest on a different core value. The top essays are recognized at an event that’s another source of pride for Wicks: “I Love the Smyrna School District Day,” celebrated on the last Saturday each February.
“When we started that, we never dreamed it would grow to 7,000 people with more than 120 tables of community groups, clubs, churches and businesses,” said Wicks.
Along with the essay awards, the day features concerts, demonstrations, arts and crafts, displays of classroom projects and tables with information about schools. But the district also welcomes community clubs, organizations, businesses and churches to set up tables.
“It’s a great way to bring us together,” said Wicks. “When I see everyone – students, parents, grandparents and community groups – that day is a highlight every year for me.”
Wicks said working together is demonstrated in big events like I Love the Smyrna School District Day and cheering for sports teams, and it’s also seen in symbols of unity.
“All of our school colors are red and white. We have one mascot, the eagle. We treasure memorabilia and honor the past,” she said. “I’m so proud of the alumni display case in the Smyrna High School auditorium lobby with pennants and yearbooks and photos of previous classes. To this day, people are still giving me things to put in the case. We recently received a graduation invitation from the 1800s. When we renovated [John Bassett Moore Intermediate School], we were able to get help from Winterthur and the University of Delaware in restoring the appearance of the murals, cleaning all the coal dust off of them and fixing holes and rips. We sold prints of the murals to raise funds to restore them.”
“All those things help unite us as a community – preserving that history, that tradition. Even as we’ve added so many new students and new families, we’ve stayed true to this – our mission to work together as a community,” she said.
Wicks said building new schools and additions to accommodate new students has been a constant challenge during her tenure as superintendent, but one that she looks back on with satisfaction.
“I’m really proud of the way the facilities look. We have beautiful buildings,” said Wicks.
During her tenure as superintendent, Smyrna Middle School on Duck Creek Parkway was the first school built in the district in 30 years, since the nearby Smyrna High School opened in the early 1970s.
“When we took the students from what was then the middle school at John Bassett Moore, before it had been renovated, to the brand new middle school, you would have thought we were taking them to Disney World,” said Wicks. “They were fascinated by all the modern conveniences like the automatic faucets and toilets, the curved windows of the library near the entrance – and it was air conditioned.”
Other new school projects she supervised were Sunnyside Elementary School and Clayton Intermediate School, while upgrades and additions have been made at each of the other buildings in the district including improvements to the plumbing, electrical systems, heating and cooling systems and security systems.
“Every Tuesday we’ve worked on construction in some shape or form, whether it was meetings or site visits,” she said. “All projects are driven by a team, with inputs from everyone on the team. We get all perspectives for what we’re going to need in that building or that addition.”
The final project she supervised was the renovations to the Thomas D. Clayton Building, the former African American school in the district during segregation. The dedication of that building was held June 22, and it will be used for administrative offices.
A lifelong Smyrna Eagle
Wicks graduated from Smyrna High (then known as John Bassett Moore High School) in 1964, and her mother graduated from Smyrna in 1937.
“My grandparents attended a one-room school in the district,” she said.
After her first year as a teacher at Clayton Elementary, Wicks left when she and her husband George had the first of their three children. After 10 years raising her children, she returned to the district as a special education teacher at Smyrna High School. She taught at Smyrna High for 16 years before being appointed assistant principal at Clayton Elementary School.
After three years as assistant principal she was appointed superintendent in 1998. She credits her predecessors and co-workers with guiding her during her first years as the leader of the district.
“Charles Williams was a great influence and was so helpful. He was my principal in high school and the superintendent when I was a teacher, and Mrs. Williams was my teacher in high school. They were straight arrows. You could always count on them. They were always hoping for the best for you and they cared so much about the school district,” said Wicks.
Wicks became superintendent after the retirement of Mary Scott.
“Mr. Williams and Mrs. Scott were very wise advisors for me,” Wicks said. “We used to have lunch once a month.”
Meanwhile, she said her co-workers and the Board of Education members have been instrumental in her success.
“It takes a team: administrators, teachers, paraprofessionals, child nutrition, custodians, bus drivers – everyone has to care about our students,” said Wicks. “The other key is the School Board. We’ve had a supportive board who cares about our students first and our staff. I’ve been fortunate to have that support. I’ve been fortunate to have wonderful assistant superintendents, first Mr. Eby then [Buddy] Lloyd and now [Pat] Williams. I’ve had the best relationships and support as superintendent from our school family.”
Wicks said she is proud of the first-class education the district provides.
“When the Delaware Department of Education started to rate school districts, our first rating was ‘superior.’ We were one of the few district to repeat and receive a ‘superior’ rating again the second year,” she said. “The key is retaining quality teachers, providing the technology that students and teachers need, and keeping our curriculum updated.”
She said the district has the best retention rate for teachers in the state, with a staff that features many Smyrna graduates.
“I love when our staff members attended Smyrna schools or live in the district because then they have more of an ownership of the district,” she said. “We emphasize coming back and contributing.”
She always took advantage of any chance she could get to show off the students, staff and schools to visitors.
“I’m so proud of our staff and students,” she said. “I love giving tours of our schools, our state-of-the art science classrooms, our libraries, our art and music facilities, our agriscience facilities, our trophy cases, our athletic fields. I go to just about every concert and play and I love it. I’m so proud of the music and art departments. That’s why we’re so successful with I Love the Smyrna School District Day because we bring in so many parents and family members to see the students’ performances.”
So why did Wicks decide to retire this year?
“I think it’s time for a younger person to take the reins,” she said. “While I’ve been superintendent, it’s been my policy to be available 24/7. Now, I’d like to sit on my front porch and drink coffee. I have three children and nine grandchildren and I’d like to go to their events. I still plan to be involved and help in any way I can, and I’ll definitely be going to the games and concerts and other school events. I’ll always love that.”
Wicks said one thing she won’t miss is monitoring the weather.
“When snow is in the forecast, I’m probably up at about 3 a.m.,” she said.
The decision to delay or close school is made after consulting with the district transportation supervisor, superintendents in neighboring districts, county and state emergency officials and department of transportation officials.
“We not only try to make a decision that makes sense for our district but for our county and state. I do have to see a snowflake, though. I won’t make a decision based on the forecast alone,” she said.
“We get such great support in the community,” she said. “When we have an emergency situation, the police, firefighters, ambulance and paramedics are here in minutes. The town councils, the county government, the state and federal government leaders have always been very supportive.”
What will she miss the most?
“The people. We work as a team, and I’ll miss the students. We have the best students in the world,” she said. “I love to see what they’re working on in the classroom. I love to see them singing, playing, receiving awards and then achieving amazing things in college, in the military and in their careers. It’s so wonderful.”
Along with I Love the Smyrna School District Day, she said graduation has always been a highlight of each year – “when I see our students going out into the world.”
“I love the Prom. I love Homecoming. My husband says I never grew up,” said Wicks. “Our Homecoming floats are such a unique project for Smyrna. We have the best floats in the state. There’s such teamwork that’s involved – the students and advisors working together, the parents who graduated from Smyrna coming back to help their children, the friendships that are made.”
She said she’s been touched by the compassion she’s witnessed from students, staff and the community.
“So many people have donating clothes and meals. At the beginning of the school year, you see all the school supplies people donate. We’ve reached out to the Smyrna-Clayton Ministerium and clubs and organizations. We have not had to go it alone. We’ve had so much help. It’s heartwarming to see all of these people take care of our kids and it’s heartwarming to see how generous our kids and staff are, how they get involved in these causes.”
COMMENTS ON SUPERINTENDENT DEBBIE WICKS' CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE SMYRNA SCHOOL DISTRICT
Gov. John Carney:
“Mrs. Wicks and the Smyrna School District have been successful over her 19 years because of the way she lifted everybody up, and motivated and empowered her team. She knew the most important component of a good education is the teacher in front of the room, in addition to all the support staff and people who enable those teachers to do their very best. Mrs. Wicks exemplifies so much of what we need in our schools to give Delaware kids an education that will set them up for success.”
Smyrna Board of Education President Vetra Evans:
“She loves the students, staff and Smyrna community. She does whatever needs to be done to make sure that all students are getting a quality education. When there are snowstorms she rises early in the morning … to determine if roads are safe enough for buses to travel.”
“I can remember seven years ago she was taking me around to tour all the schools in the district and we were at North Smyrna Elementary. I was talking to Cindy McNatt. Cindy and I were both in tears talking about her mother who at the time was very sick. I shared with Mrs. Wicks when we got in the car what was going on. Mrs. Wicks went home and got an inspirational book sharing the medical journey that her husband George was going through and took it back to Cindy. She lives the district core values daily.”
Patrice Scuse, administrative assistant:
“She lived the district’s core values of compassion, perseverance, responsibility, integrity and respect and was an excellent role model to our students and staff.”
“She was compassionate in every situation or problem that came up. Mrs. Wicks heard people out and together worked on a resolution.”
“She showed perseverance in times of rapid growth in the district and handling construction issues and passing referendums to ensure our students have what they need to receive a superior education.”
“She showed responsibility in how she attended every school performance and was our Smyrna Eagle athletes’ biggest fan. She worked tirelessly to make sure roads were safe in the early hours of the morning.”
“She showed integrity in the honest and fair way she looked at every situation, taking all the information into consideration before making a decision.”
“She showed respect for others as she honored the district’s hometown heroes, business leaders and local politicians, thanking them for their many contributions and funding which has helped to make the Smyrna School District the superior district it is today.”
“‘EAGLE 1’ has left the building but we in the Smyrna School District will always remember how she lived and taught us all by the community core values.”
Pat Williams, now superintendent, formerly the assistant superintendent:
“When Mrs. Wicks said she was planning to retire, I took a big gulp. Like most people, I didn’t think about Mrs. Wicks retiring because she loves the school district and the students so much. She’s been such a blessing to our community. After the initial shock, I realized she has created a legacy that will last well after she’s no longer superintendent. Our mission, our core values, the construction program that has updated our buildings and added new schools with first-class facilities for our growing number of students – that’s her legacy.”
Ron Eby, assistant superintendent when Wicks was appointed superintendent and 10-year Board of Education member after his retirement:
“We were all fortunate to witness what she accomplished. She became the face of this district, not only locally but around the state. She has such commitment, energy and compassion that I never saw in anyone else. She’s a tireless leader who made it her mission to attend every event she could and to visit all the buildings. I’m so proud to have worked alongside her when I was assistant superintendent and while serving on the School Board, and to see all of her success.”
“She loves this town and the school district and has been a wonderful leader for the past 19 years – the longest-serving superintendent in the history of the district. Because of her tireless leadership, our district is second to none.”