Donna Carey Hanlin seemed the ideal hire to replace John Frederickson as Wicomico schools superintendent in 2016.
Growing up in Salisbury, she was from a prominent family that preached hard work, continuous learning and community service. Her late father, Oscar L. Carey, was a respected developer and businessman; her mother, Harriet Carey was a longtime volunteer and leader of the Junior Board at TidalHealth Peninsula Regional hospital.
With an Education degree from Indiana’s Purdue University in hand, she returned home to Salisbury in 1977 to teach in the public school system. After working as a substitute teacher, her first full-time assignment was at Pittsville Elementary in fall 1978.
As Hanlin recalled in a 2016 Salisbury Independent interview: “Being a teacher is all I ever wanted.”
She worked and studied, earning a master’s in Education at Salisbury University in 1984.
She moved from the classroom to a school counselor’s role, then became a Vice Principal at Wicomico Middle and Principal at the school from which she graduated, James M. Bennett High School.
For many Gen Z Salisbury natives, Hanlin was literally their establishment model.
Later, she joined the Board of Education administration as Director of Secondary Education. After 26 years of service in Wicomico, she left in 2004 for Western Maryland to accept a senior leadership position in Allegany County public schools.
When news circulated in 2016 that the popular educator who grew up on Twin Tree Road in Salisbury might return as schools Superintendent, she had immediate community support. She was selected from among three strong candidates.
"I'm so excited," Hanlin said in her first Salisbury Independent interview. “I know it's going to be hard work, but I'm really looking forward to going back and making a difference in my community."
On Friday -- in what could be considered an announcement of significant surprise -- Hanlin announced she would retire after six years. The 65-year-old career educator cited a desire to spend more time with her growing family as the reason to depart just midway through her second four-year board-appointed term.
A large school district
Wicomico County’s school system is the Eastern Shore’s largest. With 24 schools -- 16 elementary, one elementary/middle, three middle, one middle/high and three high schools -- there are nearly 15,000 students and 2,500 certified teachers and staff members to lead and oversee.
The school system has long lagged in its leaders’ desired funding requests -- many years the schools have only been budgeted to meet state minimum budget expectations.
Retaining and paying teachers has been difficult in a county where surrounding counties either pay more or offer less-strenuous workloads.
In Wicomico, the percentage of students who are economically disadvantaged has grown by more than 2,000 students in the past 15 years. About 60 percent of students come from families who qualify for free or reduced meals under federal standards, which can make connecting with families especially difficult.
But the school system has seen some successful construction projects funded over the last two decades -- a new high school and middle school, two new elementary schools, and several upgrades and remodelings -- so classroom conditions are improving.
A new middle and high school complex in Mardela Springs is in the pipeline -- once state funding is added to the project, the total cost is estimated at $72 million.
Most every one of those projects have been a struggle, however, with elected leaders seldom agreeing on how much should be spent where for which need.
Hanlin, however, projects a veneer of optimism and energy when dealing with either County Council members, parents and staff, and the elected school board to which she reports.
She has also taken great strides to engage the business community, winning its support for education improvements that will benefit the community and enhance quality-of-life assets.
Pre-pandemic, Hanlin secured budget funding increases, helped create a public support foundation for the system, and got more people to understand education might best be seen as an investment -- not just an expense.
Almost immediately, Hanlin developed a strategic plan for the school system that addressed immediate needs. The plan -- Achieve! -- narrowed on specific shortfalls and relied on readily measurable data to determine success. Initiating and expanding a Pre-Kindergarten program was the costliest and most-desired goal, along with improving graduation rates, ensuring strong reading performance by Grade 3, and attracting and retaining a high-performing staff.
Action steps were attached to each goal, giving everyone in the system a roadmap for the upcoming years. Achieve! 1.0 was followed by Achieve! 2.0 -- and so on -- as more problems could be identified and addressed.
Hanlin also issued a list of core values she expected students and employees to follow.
The public reaction to Achieve! seemed overwhelmingly positive, as elected leaders, parents, businesses -- everyone -- knew what the school administration wanted to achieve.
Having a strategic plan also helped in her dealing with the Wicomico County Council.
“I was able to align the budget to the strategic priorities,” she said in an interview Monday. “I was able to explain our needs and what they would cost. That was reflected in the budgeting. I Think council was receptive to that.”
Hanlin had also expressed her hopes for developing specialized schools to focus on specific public needs, much in the way the Career and Technical Education Center at Parkside High School helps prepare students for specific employment needs.
Among her lofty goals was a school for the Arts that might be located in Downtown Salisbury.
Her success was such that the seven-member school board this past March offered her a new contract, squelching any possible controversy before her term’s expiration date in July.
At the time, members cited Hanlin’s meeting goals related to graduation rates, Kindergarten readiness and retaining teachers.
Board members conceded that student discipline problems and a string of criminal actions involving school staff members had placed attention on problems that distracted from Hanlin’s strategic plan.
Still, as of March at least, there was no indication Hanlin might soon retire from the position that pays $185,658 annually.
Declaring “there is still a lot of work to be done,” Hanlin said she wanted another term to continue her efforts.
“Together we have made great progress, but we still have work to do to accomplish the goals established in Imagine 2022 to benefit our students and our community,” she said at the time. “I am excited to see what can be accomplished in Wicomico Public Schools in the future.
“I do believe we are making good progress,” she said. “Yes, there have been some bumps in the road, but we weather them and come out stronger.”
Personnel and student behavior issues required a lot of time and energy.
A teacher at Parkside High School was convicted of selling drugs. A Vice Principal at James M. Bennett pleaded guilty to sex abuse of a minor and child pornography, and the popular Principal there departed after being accused of failing to report abuse and neglect.
There were security incidents that raised alarm at the county’s east side schools. In Salisbury, students and teachers engaged in various fighting incidents. Just last week, a student was charged with bringing a loaded gun into James M. Bennett.
On the security issue, Hanlin repeatedly touted four priorities.
“We will continue with the work we have been doing with prevention and intervention, but we will have a laser-like focus on safety specifically focused upon reducing the percentage of students with repeated incidents of physical aggression,” she said.
She said data reveals that about 3 percent of the student population causes the most trouble, and those students would be monitored and counseled.
“While this is a small percentage of our student population, that small percentage can create total disruption and lead to students’ and staff feelings of insecurity,” Hanlin said two years ago. The security complaints did in fact decline.
Then came Covid-19 and a worldwide pandemic.
In late winter 2020, schools went into online-learning mode. Hundreds of laptops were needed immediately to allow for class participation from home. Many students lacked either Internet modem or hotspot access.
Teachers had to find new ways to practice their profession as youngsters adapted to a digital world. When the pandemic seemed to ebb slightly, some specialized classes were offered in person, but that didn’t last long as Coronavirus positive case numbers spiked.
Then, when schools finally re-opened this fall, Hanlin and her colleagues faced an onslaught of parental complaints about required masks and other pandemic-related policies.
Said Hanlin this week: “The pandemic forced all of us into crisis leadership and required innovative thinking. No one had ever faced anything like it in education. The community’s strong opinions on issues have always been something to take in and consider strongly.”
Hanlin said she shared her retirement decision with the school board in a closed session a week ago Tuesday; the public announcement came Friday.
She cited a desire to be more available to her growing family and begin a new stage in life. She and her husband, David, have grandchildren living in North Carolina and a son in Colorado.
“I do this with mixed emotions,” she said this week, “because this school system is really home to me. I’ve been a part of these schools for 44 years -- it’s been a long time.
“I’m excited about what lies ahead. It feels right -- the timing feels right.”
She called the reaction to her announcement “humbling.”
“There have been a range of emotions from people. It’s been messages of appreciation. There have been some tears shed, though, by people who I have worked with who want to keep our projects going.”
Hanlin said her Arts School dream for the county is one such endeavor.
“Covid changed the trajectory on so many projects,” she said. “We’ve had to put attention on many other things.
“I would be naive to think (Covid) didn’t have an impact on me or what I hoped to accomplish. It changed everyone,” she said.
While many were surprised about her retirement decision, Hanlin said it had been in her mind for nearly a year. When the school board extended her contract earlier this year, she asked that it be a year-to-year-agreement in case she wanted to leave.
She said she has no concerns that an ideal candidate will be found to succeed her.
“I have every confidence this board will find a replacement who will move this school system forward,” she said.
In her video-taped announcement released Friday, Hanlin expressed similar thoughts.
“While I will continue to give my all to my duties as superintendent through June 30th, I am making this announcement so the Board of Education, in collaboration with the community, will have as much time as possible to conduct the search for a new leader for Wicomico schools.
“Whoever is selected as the next Wicomico Superintendent of Schools will have the privilege of guiding an outstanding school system with an extremely dedicated staff and excellent students,” Hanlin said.
“... For each of us, there will come a day when we know it is time to leave. It is time for me, after June 30th, to say goodbye to the school system that has felt like my family for almost my entire life, and to turn my focus to my own family and our future,” she said.