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Cautious optimism at Dawson-Bryant

COAL GROVE — Dennis DeCamp is a very positive person. He also is a realist.

As superintendent of the Dawson-Bryant School District, DeCamp journeys into his first full school year as the head of the 1,200 student school system with a long-range plan of improving the district’s slumping grades, evaporating enrollment and shaky finances.

The question of whether or not he gets the opportunity to enact the playbook he believes will lead to the type of success he managed for nearly a decade at Sciotoville Community School in Portsmouth will be answered in the next few months.

For many within the Dawson-Bryant family, there is no gray area when it comes to DeCamp.

Half see the charismatic administrator as the transitional fresh face the school system needed with his “out-of-the-box” ideas, incredible work ethic and knack for increasing grades and test scores following the departure of Dr. James Payne.

The flip side sees him as an “outsider” who somehow snatched the district’s top job away from one of their own.

Add to that an already publicized upcoming fall election where no less than nine possible candidates have shown interest in running for three soon-to-be-vacant seats on the Dawson-Bryant Board of Education and you have the making of an interesting start to the year even before the first bell rings.

And despite being working under only a 16-month contract, DeCamp eagerly looks forward to the start of school next week.

“I’m excited about it,” DeCamp said when explaining the ups and downs of his first seven months at the helm. “There have been some bumps in the road, but there have been many good times as well.”

DeCamp believes the Dawson-Bryant school district is in the midst of a “transition” period with several obstacles standing in its way.

Most prominent, is the net loss of 87 students the district saw vanish during the summer. The superintendent said 42 moved out of state while the others moved out of the district as parents were forced to relocate to find better paying jobs in the current economy.

A sad result of the loss was a decrease of more than $221,000 in state foundation monies the district will receive for starting the school year with approximately 1,230-1,250 students — its lowest number in years.

“The district is not as well as it was a year ago, but we have taken measures to close that financial gap,” DeCamp said when explaining how Dawson-Bryant was intending to limit and modify its expenditures for the 2009-2010 school year.

However, one of those measures has school administrators and teachers at odds.

Unable to reach an agreement on a new three-year collective bargaining agreement, the district and its teachers union stand at a negotiating impasse while awaiting a mediation date in the next few weeks.

Despite the drama surrounding his teachers union and board of education, DeCamp stressed his main goal for the upcoming year is to install a three-year plan for district teachers through the Ohio Department of Education’s Ohio Improvement Plan.

The OIP is a statewide program that allows districts the opportunity to improve instruction while sustaining student performance against grade-level benchmarks.

DeCamp’s initiative comes at an important time for Dawson-Bryant.

Earlier this month, the district slipped one notch in meeting the 30 state indicators on the 2008-2009 state report cards.

While still being listed as “effective”, the school system went from meeting 22 state indicators in 2008 to 21 in 2009, according to preliminary reports.

Also, the district again did not meet the federally required adequate yearly progress (AYP) in reading and math proficiency for both high school and middle school, but did meet the minimum AYP requirements for the elementary school.

Those scores forced DeCamp to shake things up district wide this week.

On Tuesday, the Dawson-Bryant Board of Education approved DeCamp moving his middle school principal, Ellen Adkins, and elementary school principal, Eric Holmes, to administrative positions at the district’s central office less than a week before school starts.

DeCamp said the move of Adkins and Holmes allows both to work and develop many of the programs the district needs to grow including federal, curriculum and special education programs.

He added that it also allows the district to attempt to implement its accelerated student program and its grassroots teacher instructional leadership initiative.

“We just want to make a good district better, DeCamp said. “We try to be on the cutting edge in many of the decisions we make.”

Adkins will be replaced as principal of the middle school by teacher Rick Barrett, while former assistant principal Angie Dillow will succeed Holmes at the helm of the elementary school.

The assistant superintendent position, formerly held by Scott Dutey, will not be filled.

As for DeCamp’s future, the Wheelersburg native is stoic when asked about his outlook come eight months from now when his current contract expires or possibly even sooner.

“My contract is not as important as the importance of our students down the road,” DeCamp says while not commenting on his current position with the Dawson Bryant Board of Education who narrowly voted 3-2 last November to hire him.

Of the nine who have shown interest in running for the Dawson-Bryant board, two current members have already officially filed for the Lawrence County Board of Elections.

Jamie Murphy, who voted to hire DeCamp and Sadie Mulkey, who voted against the hiring, have already submitted their petitions of intent. Michael Nourse and Katy Ford have also officially filed with the BOE.

But regardless of who runs, DeCamp plans on sticking with his game plan, no matter how long he is allowed call the plays.

“We are going to what is best for each Dawson-Bryant student, staff and community long term,” DeCamp said. “My goal is to make this district better than it was when I got here.”

How long he gets to make it better wil be answered in coming months.