Retiring principal cherishes 36 years as educator

Photos by Daniel Vasta/The Herald
Dubois and Celestine Elementary Schools Principal Brenda Ferguson walks into the front office after meeting with parents at Dubois Elementary on Wednesday. "It's bittersweet, but I feel it's time I gotta be a little more grandma and a little more daughter," Ferguson said over the phone while making calls. "I think that's what God is calling me to do and I'm totally at peace with it now." 


DUBOIS — The bottom corner drawer of the filing cabinet in Dubois and Celestine Elementary Principal Brenda Ferguson’s office is overflowing with cards and artwork students, staff and families have given her over her 10 years as an administrator.

Now, as she packs her office and prepares for retirement, those cards and drawings are the last things she’ll remove.

“That will be what I will look back on when I have time to just breathe and reminisce,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson announced her retirement at last week’s Northeast Dubois School Board meeting after 34 years with the corporation.

Her decision came as a surprise to her colleagues, but it was something she’d been thinking and praying about all winter. Ferguson and her husband, Dave, attend St. Raphael Catholic Church in Dubois, and she regularly attends Wednesday adoration. Over the winter, she began praying for guidance on whether or not to retire. She loves her job, but also wants to spend more time with her family.

“It finally became crystal clear,” Ferguson said. “Once I reached that point, I can’t get the smile off my face because I know it’s right.”

Dubois and Celestine Elementary Schools Principal Brenda Ferguson makes calls in her office at Dubois Elementary on Wednesday.

Ferguson began her career in education 36 years ago fresh out of college at Indiana State University. She graduated in December with a degree in elementary and special education, and within weeks she had her first job covering a maternity leave at David Turnham Education Center in Dale, not far from where she grew up in Ferdinand. She’s the daughter of Leroy and the late Ramilda Oser.

After a year and a half at David Turnham, Ferguson applied to be a special education teacher at Dubois Elementary. Despite growing up in Dubois County and living in Jasper after college, she recalled, she had no idea where Dubois was, tending instead to stay around the southern part of the county and Spencer County where her relatives lived.

“I figured I didn’t even have prayer of chance,” Ferguson said. “That was summer of ‘85, and I’ve been here since.”

Ferguson spent the bulk of her career in the classroom teaching students with special needs, a career she chose back in high school at Forest Park Junior-Senior High.

Growing up, Ramilda always stressed the importance of education to Ferguson and her twin sister, Glenda Jones, who is also a principal at Carlisle Elementary and Middle School in Carlisle, Indiana.

In her early school years, Ferguson said, she struggled to learn to read, which she thinks started her on the path toward teaching special education. The second push came in high school when a counselor suggested she cadet teach. She ended up in a special needs classroom. Although she learned that high school wasn’t the age group she wanted to work with, she did love teaching the students who needed the most help.

Looking back, Ferguson refers to her years teaching special education as the “best training” for her role as principal. In the classroom she learned the importance of catering to the whole child, not just children’s education needs. It’s a lesson she brought with her into leadership and something she sees becoming more prevalent in education.

A poster reads "Thanks you Mrs. Ferguson" with other drawings from students that hang on the wall of retiring Dubois and Celestine Elementary Schools Principal Brenda Ferguson's office at Dubois Elementary School on Wednesday. 

“It’s no longer about ABC’s and 1,2,3’s,” Ferguson said. “ It’s the whole child.”

Catering to the whole child also means working with families and the other people who support families. It means lots of phone calls, meetings and planning to make sure all of a student’s needs are met. It’s a challenge, but Ferguson is willing to put in the work.

During her time as principal, she became particularly close with one family, the Poppes. Brian and Sue Jane Poppe live in Dubois with their eight children, all of whom have or will go through Dubois Elementary. Two of the Poppes’ children have special needs, and Sue Jane remembers Brenda going above and beyond to help with anything the family needed.

When the first child with special needs started school, Sue Jane recalled, the family struggled a lot. Sue Jane remembers hitting one of the lowest points in her life at that time. Then, unexpectedly, Ferguson called and talked for an hour and a half, simply offering support and an ear to listen.

“I felt like I had somebody on my side,” Sue Jane recalled.

A few years later, the Poppes’ second child with special needs was getting ready to start preschool. Due to medical conditions, the child had issues using the bathroom and frequently had accidents or needed an hour or more to use the restroom. While most preschools would have turned her son away, Sue Jane said, Ferguson promised to make it work.

Sue Jane remembers that teachers and Ferguson would take time out of their day to sit in the bathroom with her son, and the next year when he missed a lot of school for medical appointments and surgery, the school continued to work with them.

Anytime there were new diet restrictions, Ferguson and her staff made it work. When he had to miss school, his teachers made sure his homework went home, and when he was gone for surgery, the school sent cards to make sure he knew he wasn’t forgotten.

“No matter what, Brenda always said they’d work with us,” Sue Jane said.

It meant so much to the family, and through it all Ferguson became a close family friend. So close that she’s the godmother to the Poppes’ eighth child.

Dubois and Celestine Elementary Schools Principal Brenda Ferguson walks through the cafeteria at Dubois Elementary on Wednesday.

While Ferguson has made her mark as principal of Dubois and Celestine elementaries, it took quite a bit of prodding from her colleagues to get her to pursue her administrator’s license.

Although several fellow teachers told her she should do it, she was reluctant. She’d been through a divorce and was raising her three children on her own. It would have meant traveling for grueling classes at a time when Ferguson already juggled a full schedule.

But in 2007, she decided to at least look into it. She took a trip to Terre Haute to visit her sister and explore ISU’s administrator licensing program. It turned out Jones was planning to pursue her administrator license at the same time and suggested that instead of attending ISU, Ferguson should enroll with her sister in an Oakland City University program that only held classes on Saturdays.

For Ferguson, that was much more doable than traveling two and a half hours one way to ISU a few evenings a week, and she agreed. Looking back on it now, Ferguson said, those two years at Oakland City with Jones were some of the best.

Right as Ferguson completed her administrator’s license in 2009, the principal position at Dubois and Celestine opened. She applied, and has held the position ever since. Being the building administrator for two schools is a challenge, Ferguson said, and she often feels like she’s in the “wrong place at the wrong time,” but she’s loved every minute of her career and always tried to give it her all.

Her effort hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“She’s extremely reliable at everything she does,” Northeast Dubois Superintendent Bill Hochgesang said. “You could always count on her ... She’ll be greatly missed.”

Looking back over her career, Ferguson expects the transition into retirement to be more of a challenge than her transition from teaching to administration.

“In administration, it’s like you’re a teacher over the teacher,” Ferguson said. “You’re helping them, whether it’s professional development or working through kids’ or families’ needs. That wasn’t near the transition this will be. Now it’s like I’m walking out, and I don’t know if I’ll be walking back in.”

In retirement, Ferguson plans to spend more time with her father, her children, her stepchildren and her growing handful of grandchildren. She also wants to get more walks into her day and regularly attend morning Mass at St. Raphael’s. She’s also thinking about becoming a substitute teacher or taking a part-time job in a school. Mostly, though, she’s looking forward to not being on call 24/7 and having more time to spend with her family.

And some day, when she’s feeling nostalgic, she’ll pull out the cards and artwork she’s kept in the bottom corner drawer of the filing cabinet and remember that she made a difference.

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