After years of collaboration between SMU’s Simmons School of Education and HPISD Superintendent Dawson Orr, Ph.D, Orr will officially join Simmons as the Clinical Professor and Chair of the Department of Education Policy and Leadership in August 2015.
Under this title, Orr will be spearheading two new programs: PK-12 Leadership and Higher Education Leadership. Launching in Fall 2015, both programs will provide opportunities for Master’s degrees. The programs are designed to provide comprehensive courses in teaching, research and service.
The vision is to combine education with business to prepare students to become principals and superintendents. The program will be co-taught with the management department of the Cox School of Business.
“To hire someone like Dawson, who has enormous community credibility and wealth of experience to understand how schools and districts operate and how you use evidence to enhance what those schools do for students, (makes him) the perfect person to come in and lead a department,” Dean of the Simmons School, David Chard, said.
But moving from Highland Park ISD to SMU will be bittersweet for Orr.
“I will miss the rhythm of the school and the fun being around engaged young people,” Orr said. “It’s just easy to have connections here.”
While at HPISD, Orr worked to bring global perspectives to the classrooms. He wanted students to understand different cultures and viewpoints.
Born in Columbia, then raised in Mexico and Guatemala until the age of 11, Orr grew up in the field of education. Both of his parents were teachers and administrators.
After moving to the U.S., Orr followed his parents’ footsteps to their alma mater, the University of Alabama, where his father also served as the dean of education. Orr then finished his education by getting his Ph.D. in educational leadership and planning at the University of Texas.
Dawson and his wife, who he met at the University of Alabama, moved to Columbus, Ga. for his first professional job teaching high school social studies. He took another job as a headmaster in 1981 at a private school in Mexico. Five years and two daughters later, the Orrs decided to move back to Texas to raise their family.
Orr took his first job as a superintendent in Pampa, Texas, and later moved to Wichita Falls.
“This is where I thought I would finish my career,” he said. “It was a great opportunity to learn and serve in a diverse community.”
When Cathy Bryce announced her retirement as HPISD superintendent in 2009, Orr recalled his search consultant telling him, “you can turn down jobs. You cannot turn down interviews.”
He went to the interview.
Just two months after taking the job in Highland Park, Orr met David Chard and the two began talking about potential collaborations between HPISD and SMU. Together, the duo set a vision.
“How do we combine all of our knowledge and assets to really produce exceptional leaders?” Orr said. “It is the marriage of the knowledge and expertise of the academy with focus on research, data and validation of learning, and the realties that the practitioners bring in the ways that organizations work and the constituencies that people bring to that. There is a great opportunity to bring those two things together and SMU is exceptionally equipped to do it.”
With such close proximity to Highland Park, Simmons’ students are able to see for themselves what happens within a well-organized, high-functioning school district by participating in practical classroom experiences.
“Our students need transformational leaders in their schools, and I am happy to hear that Dr. Orr will be leading the charge to fuel leadership in education at SMU,” Joey Maxwell, a Dallas Independent School District teacher through Teach for America, said.
“After going through the education minor here at SMU, I am so happy to hear that they are starting to prepare students for these kind of leadership positions,” Sarah Meyer, a senior psychology major, said.
Orr has expressed his desire to maintain the connection that he has built between HPISD and SMU.
With the global connections that SMU has to offer, Orr would like to incorporate some of these connections into the education for both students and teachers within Highland Park.
“HPISD should tap into the resources and opportunities at SMU. I have kindred belief about the importance of collaboration,” he said. “My intent is to help foster partnerships with Highland Park and other districts.”
Simmons is still in the growing period as a school and Orr has the vision to take it where it needs to go, Chard said. “Being the youngest school within the university, his maturity as a mentor will be invaluable to us.”