ROSANN SIDENER, 1955-2013

Rosann Sidener, Miami Beach High principal, succumbs to cancer

 

ebrecher@miamiherald.com

Just before Christmas 2012, a sign went up outside Miami Beach Senior High School designating the bus lane as Rosann Sidener Way.

Sidener, the school’s beloved principal since 2007, was on leave to battle cervical cancer, but she showed up for the after-school ceremony to dedicate the sign.

“It was very tough for her to get there,’’ said her husband, University of Miami music professor Whit Sidener. “She was in a lot of pain. But then she transitions into ‘Dr. Sidener from Columbia University’ and gives a rousing, touching, inspiring, emotional speech.’’

“Doc’’ Sidener, as everyone called her, told cheering students and faculty: “I love the idea that it’s a ‘way...’ It’s not my way, but the Miami Beach High way. The Beach High way is putting kids first, and celebrating diversity.’’

Then, drained by the effort and months of grueling treatment at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, she went into her office, closed the door, and lay down on the floor.

She maintained that level of commitment to school affairs until days before her death Monday night at the Coral Gables home she shared with her husband and their cat, Leonard. They also kept an apartment on South Beach, close to the school, at 2231 Prairie Ave.

John Donohue, who took over for Sidener in July as temporary principal, said she sat with staff members at her dining room table last week — thin, weak and on morphine — hammering out next year’s schedule and dealing with personnel issues.

To the end, he said, she remained “cheerful and positive,’’ the exact qualities that enabled Sidener to oversee Beach High’s rise from a “D’’ school to an “A’’ in four years.

Sidener, born Rosann Powell in Pittsburgh on April 26, 1955, was 57 when she died, and so popular with students and faculty that the Florida Department of Education allowed Tuesday’s FCAT tests to be postponed for a day so that the Beach High family could grieve.

The Miami-Dade County Commission observed a moment of silence in her memory at its Tuesday meeting, and the Miami Beach Fire Department planned on sending representatives to a vigil at the school Tuesday evening.

“The fire department feels she was a pillar of the community and a very positive influence on many young lives at Miami Beach High School,’’ said Capt. Adonis Garcia. “We’ll be flying the flag at half staff from a ladder truck...We feel like it’s the right thing to do.”

Named Florida Principal of the Year in 2012, Sidener began teaching in Miami-Dade in 1977. She served as assistant principal at Nautilus Middle School and Miami Senior High, choral director at Palmetto High School, and principal at Booker T. Washington High School before taking the helm at Beach High.

She held degrees from Columbia and UM, where her husband chairs the Department of Studio Music and Jazz.

She brought the International Baccalaureate and the Scholars Academy and Advancement Via Individual Determination programs to Beach High, oversaw its move to a new building, and saw the graduation rate rise from 63 percent to 75 percent.

“She was a magnet’’ for students’ attention when she walked the halls or visited classrooms, Donohue said. She knew most of the 2,400 kids by name.

Also last year, Sidener won the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce’s Jan Pfeiffer Distinguished Service Award, honoring her partnership with the City of Miami Beach to dramatically reverse the high school’s academic fortunes.

David Guthrie, who’s been teaching at Beach High for 21 years, said Sidener came to an “old building where things were rundown’’ with a vision and “incredible drive for change.

“She met with several veteran teachers and sought a lot of input: ‘What kind of change do you think has to happen?’’’ Guthrie recalled. “She didn’t come in and tell people what to do.’’

But her great talent was expecting only the best from faculty, staff, students and herself, Guthrie said.

“You wanted to rise up and meet those standards. Her biggest contribution was changing the culture and values of the school, making everyone want to achieve at the highest level, and motivating her staff to do that.’’

Laurie Kaye-Davis, the school’s Parent-Teacher-Student Association president, said Sidener encouraged parent involvement.

“There are many admins where parents are welcomed, but cautiously. I describe Dr. Sidener’s policy as ‘open mind, open heart, open door.’ There is total transparency and honesty...

“The kids responded to her because she was a leader who really believed in teamwork and collaboration, and didn’t ask of anyone to do anything she wouldn’t do herself, even picking up trash.’’

Sidener was the youngest of four siblings whose mother taught music and whose father worked in the security business, said her sister, Carol Eaton, of Milwaukee.

She was always independent, and at 15 months told her mother: “I can do it myself!’’

She began playing violin in fourth grade, sang lead roles in school musicals and at church, and began sewing her own clothes in seventh grade, Eaton said.

Sidener also played piano and the French horn.

She met Whitney Sidener at UM in 1979. Both divorced, they shared a love of jazz, classic music and travel, and married at Palmetto Presbyterian Church in 1983.

“She liked teaching because music was part of her life,’’ her husband said. “She loved conducting and loved turning kids on to music. And she was really good at it. She had one of the top choral programs in the area.’’

They spent a year living on New York City’s Upper West Side in the early 1990s while Rosann worked toward her doctorate and Whit taught at the Manhattan School of Music.

Sidener was exceptionally fit, worked out with a personal trainer, and embraced physical challenges. During Christmas 2010, the Sideners rode mules to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, then hiked out into a blizzard.

But in January 2011, Rosann Sidener began feeling sick. After getting a diagnosis, “she became an expert in cervical cancer,’’ her husband said. “At M.D. Anderson, they marveled at how organized she was. She was a total advocate for herself.’’

She continued to attend meetings at Beach High until last month, Donohue said.

Tuesday evening, an emotional crowd of about 300 carried candles and flowers at a vigil, talked about “Doc’s’’ impact, and chanted her slogan: “Beach is dynamite!”

Senior class president Shannon Kaplan called her “our cheerleader, our mom, our colleague...Being a principal wasn’t just a job; it was her life. It kept her going.’’

Senior Nikiya Carrero recalled how Sidener, already sick, showed

Eaton said that just before her sister’s death, she asked her to name her most important accomplishment.

She told Eaton: “ ‘Changing Beach High into a better place for kids to be, and giving all kids a better shot at education. It’s not done yet, but we’re getting there.’ That’s what she was about.’’

In addition to her husband and sister, Rosann Sidener is survived by her mother, Martha Powell; brothers Samuel and Daniel Powell; and stepson David Sidener.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to a scholarship fund that will be established in Sidener’s memory. A celebration of her life is planned for June, following Whit Sidener’s retirement from the Frost School.

Herald reporter Christina Veiga contributed to this story.

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