Dr. Ford retiring

By Maria Rose

Highland County is a town with one stoplight and a student population of 150 kids in 8th to 12th grade. Harrisonburg, on the other hand, is a city with 86 stoplights and 1,300 kids attending high school. So you can imagine the difference it must have been for Dr. Donald Ford, when he moved from being school superintendent in Highland County to the Harrisonburg City Public School system.

                 Ford has been working in Harrisonburg for 12 years now, beginning in November of 1997. His total time working in education, however, is 37 years, starting as a teacher at Liberty High School in Bedford County. He then became the assistant principal at Stanton River High School, then served as assistant superintendant in Craig County for seven years, and then superintendent of Highland County for two years, before he moved here to the Valley. His interest in education as a career stemmed from the influence his own teachers had over him.

                “I wanted to be helpful to young people,” Ford says, speaking slowly and evenly as he leans back in his office chair. “Like many students, I had good teachers and some not so good. I wanted to be a good teacher, and that was a goal I aspired to.”

                While making the transition from the smallest school division in the state to Harrisonburg was no easy feat, Ford had help in making the change. Fortunately, for him, working from positions that required a lot of work and responsibility prepared him for the job. Also, the staff that was provided for him caught him up on all the different aspects of the situation he was walking into, like the new budget he was working with—from 3.5 million at Highland County to 35 million here.

                “Everything is a matter of scale. Here we have ten times as many kids and things are bigger, but I have additional support staff, which has enabled me to manage,” Ford said. “There’s a heavy workload, but it’s balanced with supportive students and a community who appreciates education.”

                He could not learn everything, though. His first visit to the old high school, now known as Memorial Hall turned out to be an adventure—he had no idea how to navigate his way around the building.

                “I was walking around to just observe the classes in session, but I couldn’t find my way back to the office,” Ford laughed. “So I went outside to try to find out where I was in relation to the building, but I got locked outside and had to walk all the way around to the front to get back in.”

                He paused for a moment and then with great deliberation, answered what his favorite part of working as a superintendent was.

                “It’s hard to answer questions with the most, or biggest, or greatest, because this is an opportunity to be actively involved in making quality education. There are [many aspects to work on],” Ford presses his fingertips together and looks at me seriously. “But one of the best parts is when I read in the paper, or see on the TV or hear on the radio about the successes of our students and staff, whether it be performances or sports or academics. It’s an honor and a delightful experience to look at all of them and see them representing our schools.”     

                Nevertheless, Ford still faces challenges from working in a position with so much responsibility weighed on his shoulders. For example, he has had to work around numerous budget cuts while still trying to maintain the quality of programs in the school system. Also, it has proved difficult to provide room and adequate education for the immigrant populations in Harrisonburg.

                “It’s not an option to say no to anyone of any ethnicity, and frankly I would never want to,” Ford says. “But sometimes, it’s difficult for the community to understand that.”

                Working around the No Child Left Behind policy has also been hard on the school system. The ultimate goal of the NCLB policy is to have 100% passing rate for all students, which is a goal that Ford finds unrealistic.

                “If even one student doesn’t pass,” Ford explains, “then the entire school is judged on that basis.”

                In an effort to work with this policy, Ford has invested in funding for more teachers and remedial programs after school to help students.

                “We try to deal with our weaknesses so much so that they become strengths,” Ford says.

                Ford, however, refuses to take credit for any of the impact he has created for the students. He feels that any success belongs to each person that works to help the students.

                “[Working as superintendent] involves a lot of people and if any one part of the team doesn’t do their job, we wouldn’t have the success that we do,” Ford says.

                But after 37 years of working in education, Ford feels that there are other things he would like to try in his life. It will be a strange transition for him, to change from an all-consuming full time job to one of relaxation. He already knows that he will miss working to help the students the most.

                “There will come a time when I realize that I can no longer have the positive impact on students that I’ve had for most of my life,” Ford says, clasping his hands together. “It’s going to take an adjustment to wake up and realize that I’m not going to work. I will miss the student’s smiling faces, the challenges of making difficult decisions and the friendships that I’ve had on a daily basis.”

                On a lighter note, one thing he will not miss at all though, is having to worry about calling school cancellations or delays. Most people do not realize that it is Dr. Ford himself who is up at five in the morning, deciding whether to have school.

                “I’m up incredibly early on cold winter mornings and I have to go out and drive around on the streets or walk on different sidewalks and then decide,” Ford says. “I won’t miss that.”

                In his retirement, Ford is considering working as a college professor or travelling and playing more golf. While he is not entirely sure what his future may hold, he is certain about one thing.

                “I will continue to watch all school events with interest and I wish success to all students,” Ford smiles. “And I will most definitely be going to the Friday night football games. I always plan to be part of the Blue Streaks.”