Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2005

Features:

Carmen Perez Dickson ´78
Principal, Roosevelt School, Bridgeport, Conn.

Scott Lowell ´87
Actor, Showtime´s "Queer As Folk"

Melkon Khosrovian ´91
Philosophy major finds life´s flavor in a new company



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Carmen Perez Dickson ´78

Carmen Perez Dickson ´78
Photo: Harold Shapiro / Carmen Perez Dickson ´78

Principal, Roosevelt School, Bridgeport, Conn.

by Mary V. Howard


There are more than 1,000 students in pre-kindergarten through grade 8 at Roosevelt School in Bridgeport, Conn., and principal Carmen Perez Dickson ’78 knows the names of almost all of them. As she strolls through the halls of the two-story building, the same school that she attended as a child, she engages her charges in conversation, asking about their academics, settling disputes and encouraging all of them to go to college. “I tell my kids that once you get a good education, you can do anything.”

“Miss Dickson” is not a principal who sits behind a desk all day. “I like to walk around a lot. I’m a supervisor, and I supervise! It’s my job to make sure that the educational process is taking place during the day,” she says. “If I see something going on, good or bad, I ask a teacher to see me after school.” Dickson, who holds advanced degrees in education from Fairfield University and Southern Connecticut State University, goes to great lengths to give her staff what they need so they can teach effectively. “I will do whatever it takes, and my teachers know this, even if it means reading to their kids so they can be off doing something else.”

Her hands-on approach has clearly made a difference at Roosevelt. Though she has been with the school for two years, already her high standards are paying off. “If you expect nothing, you get nothing,” she says. When Dickson first joined the school, 250 children — one quarter of the student body — failed to meet state benchmarks and were required to attend summer school to avoid being held back. Last summer, under Dickson’s leadership, that number fell to 85.

Dickson grew up in a Puerto Rican family in Bridgeport, not far from Roosevelt School. While her family did not own a car and she remembers only having one pair of shoes at a time, she says she never felt poor. “Academics were the only priority,” she says. “I grew up sheltered. My parents were very strict. I went to my prom with my brother, and I was happy to be there!” she recalls with a laugh.

When Dickson first arrived on the Connecticut College campus, she had never been away from home. “I called my mom a hundred times a day,” she says. But the Hispanic studies major quickly adjusted to her new surroundings. An invitation to have dinner with former sociology professor Bernard L. Faber and his family helped her connect with faculty.

“I love Connecticut College,” says Dickson, who is a director on the Alumni Association’s board. “I had a good family life, but being at CC prepared me for the rest of the world. It opened my eyes.” She tasted her first quiche and roast beef au jus at the College, and fondly remembers afternoon teas in her dorm.

Dickson often talks about her alma mater with her students, and last year she brought a busload of eighth graders to campus when she had to attend a board meeting. “I want to make it real to my students that to have a productive life, you need a college degree,” she says.

This dynamic educator, who starts her day well before the first bell rings and is often still at her desk at 6 p.m., is always willing to help a child after school or on weekends. Recently, she set up a Saturday morning tutorial, employing her teenaged children and their friends to help students who were behind in reading.

She is known as “the Clean-Up Lady” within her district, improving student and teacher performance through hard work and high expectations. Before she came to Roosevelt, Dickson was an administrator at five other schools in Bridgeport. Only one of those schools resented her pro-active style. When teachers complained and Dickson refused to compromise her beliefs, she was “demoted” to a school with a smaller population. “I went from a school of 900 to a school of 200. And, in this district, salary is based on the size of the school.” It was a challenging time for the usually upbeat and cheerful Dickson. “It was like they won,” she says. Prayer and her devotion to her students got her through. “What drove me was the children. It is my job to see that they learn in a conducive environment.”

To “cheer herself up,” Dickson took some professional courses at Southern Connecticut State University. Her professor, Dr. Christine Villani immediately recognized something special in Dickson’s approach. “I often spoke in class about what I was experiencing [at the school]. Dr. Villani couldn’t believe it. She said, ‘Here you are fighting for the rights of the children, driving the standards home. Instead of sitting in your office, you’re out there, visible. That is good leadership. Can I come visit?’”

Villani was so impressed with Dickson and her story, she decided to do a case study. The study appears in the book, Best Leadership Practices for High-Poverty Schools (Scarecrow Education, 2004), written by Villani and Dr. Linda Lyman of Illinois State University.

Despite her rocky path to Roosevelt School, Dickson is clearly at home there. “I love it,” she says. “These kids are my batteries. They are really cool.”


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