Petal’s Smith accepted to AASA Early Learning Cohort


As a member of the American Association of School Administrators, Dede Smith didn’t think it was unusual when the organization recently sent her information about its upcoming Early Learning Cohort.

The surprise came soon after Smith submitted an application and references, when she was contacted by AASA officials to confirm that she had been selected to participate in this year’s event.

“I thought they would never pick anybody from Mississippi, so I was very excited,” said Smith, who serves as assistant superintendent of the Petal School District and the director of the Coleman Center for Families and Children. “I know that Dr. (Matt Dillon, superintendent) always talks about how we want to be better than ‘Mississippi good.’

“We know that we have a strong reputation in our state with our school district, but we want to go beyond that. So this gives us the opportunity to see what other people are doing across the country, so we can improve our work here with early childhood.”

The Early Learning Cohort is designed to bring superintendents together from throughout the nation to review emerging research, discover early-learning best practices and plan to facilitate positive change. Participants will work to determine what will make the greatest impact in their community and develop working relationships with colleagues from other school districts.

At the end of the consort, participants will have the opportunity to earn an early learning leadership certificate from AASA.

“They will have two different site visits, where I’ll go to another state and we’ll be visiting sites that have a strong background and do a lot of quality work related to early childhood education,” Smith said. “They’ll have different opportunities for professional development, and a lot of it will be sharing the work that we all are doing, like what we’re doing in Petal related to early childhood.

“Our work in early childhood has been around in Petal for a long period of time, and in our state we’re recognized as one of the leaders in our work. But we haven’t really had the opportunity to toot our horn nationally and learn about what others are doing in different states. So I’m very excited about it.”

For a small fee, the Early Learning Cohort will allow participants to bring along members of their team. Smith will be making the trip with Mary Cirino, who serves as coordinator for Parents as Teachers at the Coleman Center for Families and Children.

“She’s been here for a number of years, and she can offer a lot of information about the work that she does,” Smith said.

So far, the date and location for the cohort has not been set, but Smith plans to hear soon from AASA officials for more details.

“The email I got said they’d be announcing it soon,” she said. “I’m excited to know where we’re going to go, so I can start researching about those specific school districts and what else they’re good at.

“So it’ll be an opportunity for us to connect with other leaders. And typically what happens when you do that, you make connections that you can continue to talk to those people and collaborate for a long time after – not just during the cohort.”

And although it’ll be Smith’s first time to participate in the cohort, she’s certainly no stranger to the subject matter. She started out in the education field by earning her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Southern Mississippi, before beginning her teaching career in the Forrest County School District.

After earning her Master of Education degree with an emphasis in early childhood education from Southern Miss, she moved to the Petal School District. She taught there for a few years before being named assistant principal at Petal Elementary School in 2008 and principal at Petal Primary School in 2010.

In 2013, Smith was named assistant superintendent of the district and director of the Coleman Center for Families and Children.

“It’s a great honor for Dr. Smith to be accepted into this national cohort through AASA,” Dillon said. “It’ll be a way for us to learn some other things that are taking place across the nation in early childhood education.

“In addition to that, I think it exposes the things that we’re currently doing in our district as part of this cohort. She’ll be able to network with other leaders across the nation, and in return, hopefully be able to bring things back to our district that’s going to make us even better around this topic.”