Bearden High School's theater department has a reputation for presenting professional quality shows. This weekend's performance of the musical Les Miserables is no exception.

Elaborate sets and costumes, incredible talent and live music are part of the standard Leann Dickson sets for the school's productions.

It is a familiar routine. She starts in March with auditions for her theater class, then as soon as school starts, the students audition for roles in the musical. They rehearse for months for the November performance.

"I love my students. I love what I do. I love what we create together," Dickson said.

Les Miserables is an epic tale performed almost like an opera. It is perhaps the most complex and difficult show of her career and a real challenge for student actors.

"When I first met with them I said we have to climb all the way until Sunday, Nov. 13 and they've done that with me, which is amazing," she said.

Dickson has been teaching drama for more than 30 years starting in the mid-80s. She directed her first musical at a high school in Alabama then went on to teach in Hawaii, California and Georgia. She directed plays but loved directing musicals. She came to Bearden High School 20 years ago.

"The people who allowed me to take on this program 20 years ago, they gave me their blessing to make it what I wanted to make it and that's important and I want to leave that with whoever takes my place," she said.

Someone will take her place next fall.

In fact, Wednesday was the last rehearsal for the long time musical theater director who built the successful program.

She's retiring at the end of the school year.

Former student Lauren Houston said, "There is going to be a huge hole in the heart of everyone in this program and in this school."

"I cry every other day. My students have gotten used to seeing moments of 'What's wrong with Ms. Dickson?'" Leann said. "I'm going to miss it so much."

She loves the community the theater department has become. Parents whose kids have graduated come back to make costumes. A school administration supports the arts. It is a culture of excellence.

"The older kids set the bar for the younger kids and the younger kids want to top that. Sweet!" she said.

She has coached her students beyond the stage. Some are professional actors, stage directors and costume designers. All have learned from her.

"Professionalism. Leann Dickson is all about being professional at every point of your career when you are dealing with all kinds of people and that's something that I take no matter where I go in my life," Houston said.

Former student Alyse McCamish said, "I'm so glad she stayed all three of my years. I feel so selfish and lucky that that happened."

McCamish was in three musicals at Bearden and is now a student at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in Wales.

"You're incredible and I'll talk about you for the rest of my life as one of the most influential teachers I ever had, and I think so many of your students will," she said.

Dickson has shaped students.

"I hope I've done that. I hope I've done that," she said.

She'll be back next fall in the audience.

"I will come back and cheer them on. Both fists cheer them on," she said.

As the curtain closes on this stage of her life Dickson prepares to write her next act.

"I wish I had some lofty world-changing thing I am going to do, but I really am just stepping out on faith. I don't know what it looks like," she said.

Bearden High School presents Les Mis Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and a 2:30 p.m. matinee Sunday.