Hanlin outlines goals as schools superintendent

For Dr. Donna Hanlin, last week was nothing short of exceptional.

The Salisbury native was selected as Wicomico County’s new superintendent of schools and introduced to a cheering audience gathered at Bennett High School, where she was formerly principal.

And, the mother of four celebrated her 60th birthday.

“I’m so excited and so glad. Now I can think ahead. I won’t be in Salisbury until July 1, when Dr. (John) Fredericksen retires. We have to move. We live in Hagerstown now,” an upbeat Hanlin told the Salisbury Independent.

Board of education members, by a 6-1 vote, chose her from among three finalist candidates for the position, which pays $175,000 annually. Others were Dr. Cathy Townsend and Dr. Lorenzo Hughes. Superintendents sign four-year contracts.

Although she wasn’t seeking employment in Wicomico schools, and has never aspired to positions, “things just happened,” she said.

“I see them as opportunities to make a difference. My husband saw that Dr. Fredericksen was retiring and he told me, ‘You always said the only place you’d want to be superintendent of schools is in Wicomico County.’ I decided to apply,” she said.

Now, they are preparing for the move home where, as a child, she played school with her sister and always knew she wanted to teach.

“My parents and grandparents were active in the community. My father, Oscar Carey, was one of the founders of the Community Foundation. He started what is now Rinnier Development.  My grandfather, George Chandler, and my father were developers,” she said.

Her elementary school years were spent in the now defunct lab school on the campus of Salisbury University, then Salisbury State Teachers College.

“I always felt like having two student teachers in a classroom all the time was having an impression on me, seeing them learn to teach,” she said.

As superintendent, she will regularly talk to teachers, as well as students, who impressed her when she met them during the superintendent interview process.

“They are really, really smart. They asked great questions. I can remember thinking, ‘Wow. I hadn’t thought about that one,’” she said.

Community leaders will also be involved in discussions, including Mayor Jake Day, who was one of her students at Bennett, and who conceived of the idea for the school’s memorial garden.

“We had had a number of deaths and he went into my office and told me he had this idea. He was an architect in the making even then. I remember how much it meant to the parents. The parents took such solace in having students come together in having this garden. They took a lot of great pride in the trees they planted for their children, in their memory, and loved taking care of those trees,” she said.

Today, the garden is in front of the new Bennett High School.

As she prepares to head the school system, Hanlin will fine tune a plan she presented for her interview, outlining how she will lead achievement and student behavior.

As co-chairwoman and director of assessment and accountability for the Department of Education at Shepherd University, she familiar with the concerns.

“You have to have a solid, positive school climate where students and the staff can feel safe and achieve, and where teachers can feel comfortable teaching and be successful in their craft.

“You have to come at that from several vantage points. Do teachers and students feel valued and respected? Do students feel they are able to have relationships, one-on-one, with strong adults who support them? Is there an engaging curriculum? Can students feel successful and see the relevance of what they are doing in school?” Hanlin said.

“There have to be systems in place. We have to make sure a code of conduct is in place that is clear and appropriate and strictly enforced,” she said.

What’s necessary, she said, is professional development for staff, basing school programs on sound data and having appropriate levels of intervention for “that small percentage of students who are creating the majority, or vast majority, of discipline issues,” she said. Intervention systems must be in place and include suspensions and, if necessary, placement in the alternative school.

Unless the community is involved, plans won’t succeed, she said.

“I will be working on my plan. I’ll present it to the school board again, and I hope to make it public. I want to be very transparent in the community. A big part of that is listening and learning.

“I have to really find a balance between the urgency that needs to be a part of the work I am doing and also understanding true adaptive change. It’s finding that balance … (There will be) quite a bit of dialogue in the community, especially with people who were so involved in the teaching process, about topics of, first, creating safe schools, and how we work together around that topic,” she said.

She will talk to board of education members about how they envision her staying in touch with the public, maybe at town meetings or forums.

Hanlin is committed to being an exemplary superintendent, following 26 years working in Wicomico schools.

Afterward, she moved to Hagerstown. In Washington County schools, she was supervisor of special education, director of elementary education, assistant superintendent and associate superintendent and chief academic officer.

She taught master’s and doctorate level courses in instructional design, assessment and accountability at Frostburg University.

She was appointed by the governor to the Maryland Educator Effectiveness Council, by the state superintendent to the Maryland Instructional Technology Advisory Council and by the Washington County Board of County Commissioners to the School Building and Design Advisory Committee.

She was closely involved with a partnership between the community college and public school system that allows students to earn an associate’s degree as they are finishing high school, an opportunity she calls “dual enrollment on steroids.”

“Juniors and seniors go full time on campus in a STEM program in Hagerstown. Students who are ready should have the opportunity to access college work. Hagerstown Community College has a middle college,” she said.

In 2012, Hanlin retired and also finished her doctorate. Now, she is anticipating a new chapter in her career that she sees as coming full circle, back to Salisbury.

First, though, she and her husband, developmental director for the Washington County library, will be packing and looking for a home here, with the blessing of their four children, all grown and independent and living in Kansas, North Carolina and Colorado. One followed her mother’s path and is a teacher, as is her fiancé.

“They are very excited for me,” Hanlin said.

There are no grandchildren yet, but two of the children are getting married this summer and the others are in relationships.

“My husband has been tremendously supportive. We told our children at Christmas when they came home and we were all together that I was going to apply for superintendent. Applications were due Jan.  7. We told all four of them and they were very excited,” she said.

When she was appointed, the children were quick to send good wishes.

“One of them asked me if he could borrow $20,” Hanlin said, laughing. “They all sent congratulations. I got lots of woo-hoos.”


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