Georgia Original: This is the eighth in a series of stories spotlighting area residents who have contributed to the betterment of Northeast Georgia through their community works. In this series, The Times will highlight one person or persons each month.
Merrianne Dyer sat down in the chair in her office recently and said she’d been teased about serving in almost every role within the Gainesville City School System.
During her career, the 61-year-old Gainesville woman has been a student, parent, PTA and Gainesville Booster Club president, teacher, coach, assistant principal, principal and now superintendent.
“I really have looked at it from a lot of perspectives,” Dyer said. “That’s why when I became superintendent I felt like (I) wasn’t a normal superintendent. I knew the history. I’d seen it from all sides.”
Early exposure to teaching
Dyer’s love of education started early. As a young girl she lived with her grandparents and accompanied her grandmother, a public school teacher in Atlanta, to class.
“I think that had to have influenced me,” she said. “I wasn’t in her classroom all the time, they just put me somewhere in a kindergarten and I just went there.”
Dyer attended Spring Street School — which is now the Center for Puppetry Arts — “for at least four years.”
“I look back on it now and I was probably about 2½ or 3 to have stayed there for so long,” she said, noting for the first few years she was not an official student. “It was just a unique experience. But I think that was my security. School was always my security when I was younger. I had good feelings about it.”
At age 10, Dyer moved to Gainesville to live with her mother and stepfather. The schools in Gainesville were “much harder” than the ones in Atlanta, Dyer recalled. However, she did not suffer academically. In fact, she was a good student.
She graduated from Gainesville High School in 1970, the first year the schools were integrated. The experience she gained as a student helped her later as she started her first job.
She watched her teachers and school administrators navigate the change and took note of how students and the community at large felt. She said some people may have felt integration wasn’t entirely positive, but the community was determined to make it work for the betterment of all students.
Beginning of a career
Dyer spent most of her collegiate career at the University of Georgia but graduated from Mississippi College. She went on to teach middle school in Jackson, Miss., during the days of court-ordered integration.
She and several other white educators were bused into the primarily black schools because crossing the city’s railroads provided transportation hazards for students.
“You never think of yourself as being a part of history,” Dyer said. “We all are, but those defining moments of integration defined the generation that I’m in.”
As a young teacher tasked with coaching the middle school’s football team, Dyer enlisted the help of football players and coaches at nearby Jackson State University. Walter Payton, who was later inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, was among those who came to coach.
“It was neat because the players knew of him,” Dyer said. “He was a good player at Jackson, but later on when he achieved the fame he did and the recognition, they could say he was my seventh-grade football coach.”
Dyer later learned her action of naive young white teacher seeking assistance from a predominantly black college surprised her peers. But she was nonchalant about it, saying she was just reaching out to a nearby college for help with the middle school football team.
Following her stint in Jackson, Miss., Dyer returned to Gainesville with her family in 1976 and taught kindergarten at the old Candler Street School for five years.
Next, she worked as a teacher at Fair Street School from 1986 to 1996. Then she assumed the assistant principal position at Enota Elementary School. After five years at Enota, Dyer returned to Fair Street School as principal, playing a pivotal role in helping the elementary school gain the prestigious International Baccalaureate status, a college preparatory program, in 2005.
Rise to the top
Following her tenure at Fair Street School, Dyer rose to the superintendent’s position in 2008. Her ascension was somewhat unexpected, especially since she never applied for the position. Instead she was hired permanently after serving as interim superintendent for the system for three months.
Dyer was selected to the interim position after the previous superintendent was terminated for financial irresponsibility.
In her latest role, Dyer faced many challenges, such as the system’s multimillion dollar deficit at the start of the recession and necessary repairs and upgrades to the system’s facilities.
Dyer confronted the obstacles head-on. In fact, she pointed out her “highlights” as working through difficult state policy changes and economics and adding facilities such as the new Fair Street International Baccalaureate School, which opened in 2013.
“People in this city and beyond should recognize the genius of Merrianne Dyer,” Gainesville City Schools board member Sammy Smith said. “Taking on a job during very difficult times and marshaling collective brain and brawn to get the ship called a school system upright and sailing ahead.”
Dyer laughed and said all she did was “hold down the fort” while students and educators set records.
From her superintendent’s chair, Dyer also watched the system succeed in academics and extracurricular activities. Gainesville High School Academic Bowl Team won the state tournament in 2012, and the football team won the state championship game the same year.
“Winning a state football championship surprised me because I didn’t realize how much it meant to me,” Dyer said. “In high school as a majorette, there were two of those (state championships) we missed there.”
Ready to retire
Dyer said she’s always thought of her role as a “transition,” but one she couldn’t leave until she’d made it better than it was when she started. Now, she said she feels the time has come to leave the system to another leader. She will retire at the end of the school year.
Dyer said the only commitment she has made for her retirement is to do some part-time consulting work with Scholastic, an educational materials publisher. Other than offering her educational expertise to the company, she plans to spend more time with her family.
“The advice I’ve received from people who have retired is to weigh all of (the options) but don’t overextend yourself because you’ll end up working as much as you did,” Dyer said, laughing as she leaned back in her chair.