CLEVELAND, Tenn. - In the 17 years that Rick Denning has been director of Cleveland City Schools, the system has gone through $70 million in building construction, renovation and expansions; a technology revolution in classrooms; and the changing face of the community.
But Denning, who is retiring at the end of the school year, said no one accomplishes anything alone.
"That speaks volumes about this community," Denning said. "They want top-flight schools and facilities. Children are still a very high priority in this community. I'm afraid there are places where that priority is lower."
Another indicator of that priority, Denning said, is the system and community's commitment to technology in the classrooms.
The Cleveland Board of Education puts aside 10 percent of new sales tax revenue for technology, he said. City voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase for capital projects in 2009.
"That shows the farsightedness of the school board, among many examples," Denning said.
In the school system's annual report, a practice begun by Denning, the director lists the building program as one of his proudest accomplishments.
"I am delighted that our system has bought into the concept of data-driven decision making," he wrote. The results, he said, are reflected in the school system's consistently high test scores.
Cleveland is a more diverse place now than when he arrived in 1994, Denning said.
When Denning began his education career more than 43 years ago in North Carolina, diversity meant mostly black and white. Since then there are many more cultural backgrounds represented in a local classroom, he said. Diversity was a good thing then, and it still is, Denning said.
"I'm more convinced than ever that diversity is a strength in our society. It has been in the past, when the majority were white. It still is, as the colors are changing," Denning said.
Most current Cleveland school system administrators and teachers have been hired or given new responsibilities by Denning.
Doug Greene was Cleveland High School principal in 1994, but then he spent years as assistant director after Denning arrived.
"It took us a little while to get used to his leadership style," Greene said. "He is totally student-focused. You don't have to work with him long to realize that."
That focus is another reason the Cleveland City Schools system is considered a "plum" in Tennessee, Denning said.
"My predecessor, Dr. Donald P. Yates, built the first floor of today's school system," Denning said. "I added a second floor. Dr. [Martin] Ringstaff, I hope, will add several floors. I hope he adds so many that I am left in the shade."
Ringstaff, Denning's successor, will be the city school system's 10th director in 126 years.
Denning officially leaves office on June 30, and he and his wife are moving back to North Carolina.
"We will just have to watch and see what the Lord has in mind for us," he said.