ELYRIA — He’s a tall, imposing figure with a calm nature and a knack for reaching students on their level.
He’s the kind of man to stay after school for hours to meet with working parents at a time that is more convenient for them.
As Elyria High School Assistant Principal Sam Dickerson puts it, “Before you can expect these kids to function academically, you have to get their social and emotionally stability together.”
When Dickerson got to Elyria three years ago, he brought with him tons of experience honed in the Cleveland school district.
He saw a hole in the Elyria district’s offerings to students and filled it with a program aimed at getting high school students exposed to small independent colleges where they could get scholarship dollars, and he made sure Elyria students outnumbered students from other schools participating in the Cleveland Clinic’s Dr. Charles Drew Saturday Academy.
He formed a tight bond with students. So when word got around Wednesday that Dickerson’s contract with Elyria Schools would not be renewed, students protested.
Shortly before 10 a.m., students reacted by walking out of classes and gathering in the dining hall to stage an impromptu sit-in protest. Hundreds participated.
“I feel like he helps us so much, and they just let him go,” said Talena Thomas, a junior at the school. “I feel like he’s the only one who helps us minorities and other kids. He keeps us out of trouble and tries to get us in scholarship programs.”
Later in the evening, in an unconventional move, the board voted to treat his layoff similar to teachers, with the understanding he will be offered the first assistant principal position that opens up at the high school or in a middle school in the next two years.
“I’m not a victim,” Dickerson said shortly after the school day ended Wednesday. “This is just a result of the levy not passing.”
Now he’s the face of what $3 million in cuts looks like in a district grappling with the need to stay fiscally solvent. School districts are largely personnel-heavy operations, so when money needs to be cut, employees are the first on the chopping block.
Dickerson is not alone.
Earlier this year, Superintendent Paul Rigda announced sweeping cuts to the district’s budget. Absent a school levy to bring in more money — the last levy the district put on the ballot was in 2012, and it failed — extensive reductions are the only way to prevent a deficit.
The district-wide cuts include the elimination of 59 positions — among them teachers, special education instructors and classroom aides.
“The decision was in no way due to job performance,” Elyria High Principal Tom Jama said. “I gave Mr. Dickerson a good evaluation this year and recommended he receive a two-year contract.”
From the students at the protest, it was clear he connected with the students.
“He was the only principal at our school who cared and tried to connect with every student that he comes into contact with,” said senior Erinn Roseboro. “He was the only one to support you when you needed someone to talk to. He wasn’t even my principal, but we went to him before going to anyone else.”
Cousin Alexis Roseboro, also a senior, said Dickerson organized a college tour over spring break for several students.
“If you need help with anything, he’s going to make it happen for you,” she said. “He helped me with my college stuff and my sports. He’s just that type of person. He’s going to help you. If I need help when I’m in college, I’m going to call Mr. Dickerson, and I know he will be there.”
Jama said the protest lasted for little more than an hour. He then spoke with students and asked them to move their demonstration to the gymnasium so lunch could be served in the dining hall. He characterized the kids as respectful and civil.
However, one unidentified student pulled the fire alarm as the students were moving between the dining hall and gymnasium. The building was cleared. The Elyria Fire Department was called, and after a check of the building, Jama said, students were allowed back in the school.
“They went to the gym and waited there until Mr. Dickerson came to speak with them,” Jama said. “He was very upfront with the kids and professional. The kids were demonstrating their right to protest a decision they felt was not in the best decision to make.”
Dickerson was in Garfield Heights attending a meeting of principals and athletic directors when he got the message to return to the school to quiet the impassioned students.
“They kept telling us it’s not their fault, but in a sense it is, because the students should have a say-so or a thought on who we feel should stay,” Erinn Roseboro said.
Dickerson said he prayed on the drive back. When he walked into the school, in a door nearest to the gymnasium, the students began shouting and chanting his name, he said.
“I told them, ‘This right here means more to me than any paycheck I could ever get from Elyria Schools, but I want you to go back to class in peace. I have never caused a disruption in this school and if you are doing this for me, you won’t, either.’ ”
Dickerson does not dispute the fact he has a great rapport with students. It’s his leadership style, he said.
“I love the kids and pour so much into them and their families,” he said.
Penny Opdyke, the parent of two kids at the high school, said Dickerson, who is black, is largely seen as a father figure to many of the minority students in school.
“In that school, they don’t expect the minority kids to succeed like the white kids, and Mr. Dickerson is not like that. Mr. Dickerson is trying to make a change in that school,” she said. “He’s there for those kids who think there is no one there for them. He lets them know he cares about their education.”
Now that word is out that Dickerson might not return, he said he will not be dismayed. His contract is not up until July 31, and he plans to work until then. And maybe, if another administrator resigns or retires, a position will open up next school year.
“This is the finest staff and diverse group of kids I have ever worked with in my life,” he said. “This job truly has been a blessing for me. So, in reference to my future plans, I plan to be a Pioneer.”
Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or firstname.lastname@example.org.