by Eric Stearley
After 43 years in education, Metropolitan School District of Wabash County’s Chief Academic Officer Lavonne Sparling will retire at the end of the school year. Sparling, who spent all but one year with the district, will be remembered as an innovator in public education. She was a consistent, driving force in moving the district into the future, both as a teacher and as an administrator.
After graduating from Purdue University in 1971 with a degree in elementary education, Sparling took a teaching job in Miami County. Shortly after signing her contract, she was offered a position at Lagro Elementary, a school just a mile from her house. She knew that when the next school year came around, she would be at Lagro. She taught fifth grade at that school for several years, during which time she completed her Master’s Degree.
“I remember when someone called the school to say our cows were on the road,” she wrote in a short memoir of her time with the district. “Oren Guenin, the principal, and another teacher went with me to get them back to the pasture.”
Sparling later transferred to Southwood Elementary where she taught fourth grade. Her favorite memory in education is from her time teaching the fourth grade Indiana history curriculum. As part of the course, the school’s fourth grade students traveled to her farm to experience early Indiana life, churning butter, spinning yarn, rolling logs, fishing in the pond and watching a blacksmith shoe horses in their barn.
Other fond memories were less planned. She recalled a blizzard in the late 70’s and the resulting announcement from the school’s principal that left staff and students stranded at school overnight.
“We laughed at his joke when he said that the Indiana State Police had just called to say the buses could not leave,” Sparling wrote. “The laugh was short lived as we turned around to see students coming back into the building.”
But it wasn’t all bad, as teachers entertained students, contacted parents, and scrambled to put something together for dinner, all the while creating an unforgettable memory. She remembers the few students who were picked up by parents being greatly disappointed that they missed the “big adventure.”
Cross-country trips as a Science In Motion coordinator left their mark as well.
“It’s hard to believe, but for 20 years in a row, every year in June, we were gone with kids,” Sparling recalled.
According to Sparling, Sharp Creek Principal Oren Guenin and teachers Chuck Baer and Jerry Mills formulated the plan to take a bus full of kids to Florida that first year. She was a bit skeptical.
“Mr. Brubaker and I were just kind of laughing at them like, ‘They’re dreaming! You can’t take 50 kids to Florida,’ and they started convincing us hat they were really going to do this and they wanted us to do it with them,” she said. “We had only the five of us and maybe one other parent that went with us, and we weren’t very organized.”
The first year, the group was so late to each camping location, they never set their tents up during daylight. Supplies were packed in an inconvenient fashion and students brought their own tents, which resulted in a chaotic campground setup process. After that, they got identical tents, which students could set up in seconds, organized and labeled each day’s food, and packed it in reverse order so it was easy to access.
“It was just like clockwork,” said Sparling. “Plus, we had a lot of adults start going with us too, so we had a lot of help.”
Eventually, she went back to graduate school, earning a K-12 Computer Endorsement and a K-12 Gifted and Talented Endorsement. This opened up new opportunities for Sparling and began a chain of events that would solidify her legacy as an innovator. She became the district’s computer teacher, traveling between its four elementary schools. This was the mid-80s and cutting edge technology had made it all the way to a tiny black screen with green flashing print. Primitive hardly describes the TRS-80s she worked with, but they were far more advanced than the room-sized computers she had seen in college.
“I smile when I think of the computer lessons, with a whole class sitting around one computer as we learned the parts: keyboard, monitor, CPU,” she recalled.
Along with teaching students about computers, she began teaching a gifted and talented program called Quest, designed to teach small groups of students who needed a challenge beyond the regular curriculum. In the mid-90s, she began building websites with students in this program, which showcased their research work. These students also participated in the Dynamath competition, an annual event. One year, her students were the national champions.
“I am always so impressed with what elementary students can do, given an open-ended opportunity to be challenged,” she reflected.
After earning an administrator’s degree, Sparling began to transition out of the classroom and into the district’s central office. She focused her energy on professional development for the district’s teachers and writing grants, many of which were technology based. On the same day she recalled her first lessons with the archaic TRS-80, the district’s students learned from home on iPads and MacBook Airs, the result of a 1:1 technology initiative for which Sparling helped write grants. As chief academic officer, she spends much of her time working with teachers on technology-based curriculum as the school transitions from textbooks to digital classrooms.
Though she still loves her work, she’s ready for a new chapter in her life. While the politics currently affecting education in Indiana play a small role in her decision, her retirement truly comes down to family. Her husband, Ron, retired two years ago, and with winters like we’ve experience this year, travel has a growing appeal.
“There were lots of times this winter during the snow storms where he would say, ‘We could go to Florida,’ or ‘We could go to Arizona,’” said Sparling. “I can’t get away, but he could.”
Sparling also has young grandchildren and looks forward to the flexibility that retirement will allow her. Her son and his family live in Ghana, Africa, a place she is excited to visit. When school was closed for a week following Christmas break, it finally hit her that it might be time to retire.
“I just loved that flexibility of getting up and taking my computer and sitting beside the fire,” she said. “I got to thinking, I could handle this life.”
As of June, this will be a reality for Sparling, though perhaps without the lit fireplace.
“What I told her is, she could leave whenever I left or after I left, but she couldn’t leave until I left,” said Superintendent Sandra Weaver. “She’ll be very hard to replace.”
Weaver said that they are opening the position internally and externally, perhaps with a few modifications in the job description. She hopes to have the position filled by the start of the summer.
When summer comes to an end and the start of school comes around, she will likely be the envy of her former coworkers, as she has a camping trip planned to the beach of Lake Michigan. After 43 years in education, however, Sparling knows she’ll be on the beach thinking about the “first day of school.”
“We have a wonderful school district. We have a lot of hard working, caring teachers, and I think this community is fortunate to have school districts like we have,” said Sparling.
There’s no doubt that the Metropolitan School District of Wabash County feels fortunate to have had Lavonne Sparling in their ranks for the last 42 years.