SALT LAKE CITY — When Sydnee Dickson asked to be placed into more challenging science and math courses in high school, she was countered with a recommendation from a school counselor to take secretarial coursework instead.
Dickson said she was taken aback.
The advice went against her early ambition of one day becoming an attorney or a psychologist, a goal that formed while attending a two-classroom schoolhouse in Antimony, Utah. It also came at odds with a craving for learning that was cultivated at home.
"My parents really believed in education, and reading was a big part of our culture in our home," Dickson said. "From the time I was a young girl reading Nancy Drew mysteries, I knew that there was a bigger world out there, and I wanted to make a difference."
Dickson's longing to help others and curiosity for life has carried her through the classroom as an elementary teacher, a school counselor, administrator and in leadership positions in several school districts and the office of the Utah State Board of Education.
Last month, the board appointed Dickson as the state superintendent of public instruction. Now her desire to serve is coupled with an added measure of trepidation that comes with the mantle of leading Utah's education system through policy shifts, an emerging teacher shortage and a multiplying student population of more than 630,000 children.
"You immediately feel the burden and the weight of Utah's children," she said. "You feel the burden and the weight and the blessings of being in this position and trying to make a difference."
A new role
Dickson, 57, entered state education administration about eight years ago, working in teacher licensing, mentoring and accreditation, then later becoming director of teaching and learning at the state office.
After former superintendent Martell Menlove's retirement in 2014, Dickson became the interim deputy superintendent, and later deputy superintendent to Brad Smith, who replaced Menlove.
But even as deputy, the thought of becoming superintendent didn't come naturally for Dickson. It wasn't until several state lawmakers, other education leaders and her husband, Jim, asked: "Why not you?"
"My life has been about trying to build capacity in others and empower others to do their best, and I really hadn't taken the time to think about that for myself," she said.
Smith worked for 15 months, then announced his resignation in February during the general session of the Utah Legislature. Dickson had already been filling in for Smith, who was taking a medical leave of absence. She assumed the role of interim superintendent until her appointment was made final last month, when she became the fourth superintendent since 2012.
Chairman David Crandall said members of the State School Board favored Dickson's "demonstrated passion for education and her strong leadership" and recognize that "her success, in large part, depends on the support that she gets from the board."
"Naturally, when you're working closely with somebody, you see both the good and the bad, the strengths and the weaknesses," Crandall said. "So we do know what we're getting with Dr. Dickson, and we're excited to work with her."
Angela Stallings, associate superintendent of policy and communication for the board, said the superintendent's role is especially challenging in having to answer to expectations of lawmakers on one side where policy often originates, and thousands of schools and teachers on the other side where policy is implemented.
"It truly is, I think, one of the most difficult public service offices in the state of Utah," said Stallings, who previously spent a decade working in the Utah Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel. "Depending on the policy, the state superintendent and the state board often get the blame for anything that goes wrong, but they very rarely get the credit for anything that goes well."
But she expressed her confidence in Dickson, whom she knew as a student at Murray High School where Dickson was a counselor.
"She is the perfect blend of innovator and pragmatist," Stallings said. "She has this good balance that others don't."
Utah's education system is in an especially "critical" place where that innovation and pragmatism could create promising opportunities for students, according to Stallings.
Those may include an education advancement model based more on competency than age, and assessment and accountability systems that better conform to Utah's needs, as permitted by federal legislation that replaced No Child Left Behind last year.
"But if we don't prepare appropriately, either with planning or with the appropriate resources, we could miss these opportunities for these big changes in the system," Stallings said.
Cultivating constructive policy requires credibility with both the Legislature and educators. And while the position of superintendent entails an inherent degree of distance from the classroom, Dickson said she plans to "get out in the field and listen" to teacher, student and parent voices.
"It's really important to keep those fresh voices in my ear and see their faces," she said. "By doing that, when you engage in policy, it becomes real."
During her final job interview with the State School Board, Dickson also called for greater fiscal transparency in the state's education system. That includes budget actions at the school and district level, as well as the administration of more than $4.5 billion in taxpayer dollars statewide.
Dickson said she hopes to improve fiscal responsibility by helping schools and education leaders prioritize programs with demonstrated results in improving student outcomes and personalizing education.
But changing the status quo can be met with resistance, however, which might stem from large class sizes, limited resources or limited imagination, Dickson said.
"Sometimes we're still bound by old practices just because it's the way we've always done it," she said. "The Legislature wants to ensure that we're using dollars wisely, and when we're transparent and accountable with how we're spending the money and gain their trust, then I think they feel more willing to go out on a limb and find additional revenue for schools."
Still, Utah schools face a number of looming concerns, not the least of which is an enduring teacher shortage happening in the height of student population growth. Currently, about half of all new teachers leave the profession by the end of their fifth year.
It's a problem with a diverse array of causes — low teacher pay, burdensome policies, dwindling morale and others — and no single solution.
But it will take a collaborative effort between the State School Board and the Legislature to bring more teachers into the classroom and keep them there, Dickson said.
"I think educators have a lot of hope pinned on us that the system will go back to a time when they found joy in education," Dickson said. "I think we've just sucked the life out of them in so many policies."
Some lawmakers have already recognized improved relations between education leaders and the Legislature. Hurricane Republican Brad Last, chairman of the House Education Committee, said he largely credits Dickson with bringing the two together.
Last, who attended then-Dixie State College with Dickson, said he "couldn't be more pleased" with her appointment to the superintendency.
"I think Syd has credibility with the teachers, I think she has credibility with administrators, I know that she has credibility with legislators," Last said. "She has, I think, significantly improved the relationship between the Legislature and the (State School Board)."
But competition for funding between K-12 education, higher education and transportation remains a reality that state and education leaders grapple with every year.
Legislators over the past five years have invested $1.7 billion in new money for education. The state, however, remains in infamy as having the lowest per-pupil funding levels in the country, and an average starting teacher salary some $3,000 less than the national average.
In preparation for continued growth in student numbers, Dickson said she hopes to frame the funding conversation around thinking about public schools as "essential infrastructure" that shapes outcomes in all areas of life for Utahns.
"I think the challenge for (lawmakers) is being willing to go out on a limb, to raise taxes and have a dedicated tax credit toward public education," she said. "If we as a community think about public education as essential to our well-being, our economic health as well as civic engagement and prosperity, then we'll invest in it differently."