By Frances Bradburn
Everyday Education 

Merrill's Career Paralleled Technology's Rise


Donys Kaye Merrill was the Transylvania County Schools technology coordinator from the 1990s to 2014. She will retire in February.

Retirements are always bittersweet, but occasionally a few take on greater significance. Such is the case when Donys Kaye Merrill retires from the Transyl-vania County Schools (TCS) in February. In a very real way, Merrill embodies the evolution of educational technology, even technology in general, in her 40-year career with the school system.

Hers is a familiar story in educational technology circles; many of the original players in this important sub-set of education began careers as classroom teachers and discovered computers as they were being introduced to the general public.

Computers were brought to schools much as to the rest of the world: to automate mindless, paper and number-intensive tasks. As Merrill describes it, "I was tallying up Quality Points (QPs) to determine seniors' class rank - numbers on individual pieces of paper that represented four years of grades and courses. My desk was awash in stacks of paper! There had to be a better way."

And there was. A fellow teacher who taught an early computer programming class introduced her to the Apple 2e computer. Tallying QPs suddenly became more manageable and Merrill was hooked.

At the same time, the state was beginning to automate its systems and Transylvania County was smart enough to recognize a young woman with an interest in technology. When SIMS (Student Information Management System) was introduced to North Carolina school systems in 1986, TCS tapped Merrill to take on the challenge at Brevard High School. In 1987 she was appointed BHS assistant principal, with the understanding that she would continue as the SIMS data manager.

In the 1990s, the state began to automate all its data-gathering and finance systems and computers began their inexorable march into classrooms. TCS realized that it needed an individual to manage all this technology; Donys Kaye Merrill became the system's first - and until February 2014 - only technology coordinator, soon to be known as technology director.

Because Merrill is first a teacher, she has always understood that technology's power comes not from "stuff" but from what it affords the teacher and instruction. Thus, while always cognizant of the state's data needs, she retained the vision of how technology could enhance teaching and learning.

Instructional technology entered North Carolina schools via the media center (a.k.a school library), and Merrill and her central office counterpart Dian Brewton brought the school librarians on board. Merrill and an early technician strung wires everywhere. They brought in Fred mail, the original, rudimentary instructional technology e-mail system. That tell-tale dial-up sound meant TCS was entering a new era of communication.

A single computer in the media center brought in Internet access and the new world of online research and eventually online resources. Merrill was quick to realize that all these resources would soon overwhelm the busy classroom teacher, so she concentrated on justifying one and then more media coordinators and teachers to join her staff to provide teacher training and resource selection and aggregation. In the late 1990s a series of federal grants administered by the state allowed her to do just that; Merrill first hired Carrie Kirby and, soon after, Sarah Kevitt as instructional technology facilitators. They have continued to work together since that time, a tribute to Merrill as a boss as well as a technology director. This focus on instruction has sealed TCS's reputation across the state as a school system that understood technology wasn't about "the stuff," but about what teachers and students could learn and do with it.

Yes, from floppy disks to the cloud, from Fred mail on one computer to every teacher with email access on her desk; from a single classroom to online courses available to teachers and students; from wires everywhere to wireless, Merrill has seen it all. Yet her final vision was every student a computer - all day, every day. And we have arrived.

It started in Rosman with the Netbook pilot and moved to BHS and Davidson River in 2010. Then in 2011 the Golden LEAF Foundation awarded a grant to TCS to move 1:1 into both middle schools. And now, once January testing is complete, the elementary schools will pilot a Learn Pad initiative in which some grade 3-5 teachers and students will move to 1:1 as well.

With 1:1 entering TCS's elementary schools, Donys Kaye Merrill has reached her goal and a found a good time "to go be a grandmother." But with her exit, we do well to remember her parting words: "I didn't do this alone. Others had the vision, too, and the influence to help move it forward. From a long list of superintendents and central office colleagues to the media coordinators, ITFs, and teachers in the schools, I was only as successful as their vision and willingness to put kids and their learning first."

As Donys Kaye Merrill departs, we all need to heed and appreciate her vision for educational technology: "It's not about the stuff; it's about the kids."

Thank you, Donys Kaye!

(Frances Bryant Bradburn, former Director of Instructional Technology at the North Carolina Depart-ment of Public Instruction, is currently working with schools and school systems interested in 1:1 implementation through a partnership between North Caro-lina New Schools and the Golden LEAF Foundation.)

Merrill is a high school math teacher who moved up the career ladder from her 1970s beginning, from math teacher to guidance counselor to assistant principal to technology coordinator/director for the district.(Courtesy photo)


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