ANTIMONY, Garfield County — Sydnee Dickson is back where her long association with public education began, the elementary school of her youth.
It was there she developed a passion for reading, devouring every book in the book closets that served as the school's makeshift library — sometimes reading each title twice.
From kindergarten until she was 10 years old, she learned in a two-room schoolhouse. Her teacher was her grandmother.
"She would not allow me to call her grandma, grandmother. I had to call her Mrs. Jolley. If I called her anything but Mrs. Jolley she didn't answer me because she didn't want to show favoritism to her grandkids," said Dickson, Utah's State Superintendent of Public Instruction.
On Tuesday, Dickson returned to the school and her hometown as part of her annual fall listening tour, a tradition started after she was named state superintendent in 2016. This year's tour includes visits to 10 school districts and a number of charter schools.
While each visit gives her an opportunity to see how state education policies are carried out in urban, rural and charter schools, it is also an opportunity for educators and administrators to share their perspectives and concerns.
Earlier this fall, Dickson visited San Juan School District, where she was told by a veteran educator that it was the first time the state's education leader had visited the Navajo reservation in at least three decades.
"I almost cried when I heard that," Dickson said.
For Dickson, the return to Antimony was personal. Drive down the main drag and she points out her childhood home.
A little further down the road is Antimony Mercantile, which was run by her family during her youth. Young Sydnee Sorensen worked the candy counter, carefully wiping fingerprints and smudges from the glass cases.
She also dug for nightcrawlers, collecting them for bait to sell to anglers who stopped by the store.
Coming home is "just surreal," she said. The school was rebuilt a decade ago and after Dickson's family moved to St. George when she was 10, she has only visited Antimony a handful of times.
"Just to see all the updates of the building, technology and modernization of the school, and yet it still has that wonderful hometown feel. Meeting the kids, they belong to families that I grew up with. A couple of the teachers are people I'm related to. It was fun to make connections but really just to come home and see how important that having a school in the community really is," she said.
Antimony Elementary has a current enrollment of 15 students grades K-6, which made it easy for Dickson to pose with entire student body and staff for photographs.
The school is led by teacher/principal Sierra Westwood, who is 23 years old. Although Westwood is from rural Utah as well, she was unaccustomed to what is the modern version of the one-room schoolhouse.
Dickson's visit made a big impact on Antimony students, she said.
"We're from tiny little Antimony here and the world is so big. I felt it just really showed the kids that they can do big things and they can do hard things. They can go places in life and dream big. They were really excited to have her here. She knows a lot of their family members. She got down to their level and really talked to them about people that they knew and it made the kids more comfortable and it was really exciting," Westwood said.
Dickson said she was not sure that elementary school students understand what a state superintendent does.
"They were really excited I was once a student here. They were more excited about that than my role," said Dickson.
Dickson said her visit to Antimony, named for semi-metallic ore that historically was mined in the area, reaffirmed to her the importance of the state's Necessarily Existent Small Schools program, which helps school districts pay to operate schools in remote areas of the state and in places with low student populations.
"In order to provide school for these rural and remote places, the funding source of NESS is really critical," she said.
It helps, as well, that the education efforts are supported by mobile libraries and health care clinics, she said.
When Dickson was attending Antimony Elementary School, part of her finger was cut off in an accident.
"The principal had to pick me up and carry me and run to my parents' store and then it was another hour to the doctor. Just the remoteness of some of these rural places can make things very complicated," she said.
But smallness and isolation are also what makes rural education magical, Dickson said.
"The most innovative schools sometimes are those in small towns because you have to be creative and innovative. She (Dickson's grandmother) definitely was. All those years later when I became a teacher, there was all this research to back up what my grandmother used to do.
"So I think it's just the invention of necessities. Teachers work really hard to figure out what works best for their students and really individualize everything for their students."