By Kevin S. Austin
Mary McPherson is all about community. And the community within the community.
Last spring she was named elementary school principal at St. Martin’s Episcopal School. Already, she has forged new bonds by asking administrators to “adopt an elementary class” and build stronger ties between school administration, teachers, parents and students.
The new unions have been “a wonderful thing to see,” McPherson said. “Because one of our hallmarks at St. Martin’s is that we are truly a loving, tight-knit, nurturing family.”
St. Martin’s is a private Episcopal school on Ashford Dunwoody Road with about 540 students and 70 faculty members. It offers a full curriculum and requires students to take one religion course every year.
And it is unique in the Atlanta education community in offering instruction only from kindergarten through eighth grade. Many of its graduates move on to Marist, St. Pius X and other private schools nearby.
McPherson believes strongly in the K-8 format.
“It allows older students to develop leadership skills and become mentors without getting jumbled up with high school,” McPherson said.
The education at St. Martin’s is inquiry-based, McPherson said; children are encouraged to ask questions and seek answers. “Students are learning Christian faith and embracing that, while understanding that other people have different beliefs.”
McPherson, 36, was born and raised in Marietta and graduated from Oglethorpe University with a B.A. in history. After earning her teaching certificate, she visited St. Martin’s during her job search and said she knew immediately she wanted to be there.
That was 13 years ago. The school took her on as a part-time coach while she also taught and wrote educational materials at the Atlanta History Center. One year later, St. Martin’s hired her full time as a technology instructor. Eventually she was named director of instructional technology.
She then earned a Master’s in Instructional Technology from Georgia State University and continued teaching. In that role, she has taught nearly every student currently enrolled at St. Martin’s. This year, despite her new job as principal, she still took the introductory technology class for first-graders, just to keep her hand in.
“Working with kids is an absolute joy,” McPherson said. “I wouldn’t do anything else.”
Five years ago, though, she did decide to take on another challenge by earning a doctorate. Last fall, after years of teaching full time and attending graduate school, she completed and defended her dissertation, which examined the role of women’s clubs in education in Georgia at the turn of the 20th century. Yes, she is a self-proclaimed history nut.
That accomplishment means that today, besides adding “Ph.D.” after her name, she also has earned the nickname “Dr. Mac” among the students and faculty.
McPherson won the principal’s job last spring after the school conducted a national search. It turned out their top candidate was right on campus the whole time.
“Mary embodies many of the qualities of St. Martin’s,” said the Rev. Dr. James E. Hamner, the school’s headmaster. “We try to teach to the mind, the body and the spirit. That’s a gift our students are able to take with them the rest of their lives.”
Multiculturalism is another foundational principle at St. Martin’s, and one that McPherson embraces and hopes to expand. The concept is woven into the curriculum, but also includes programs such as Power Over Prejudice and a world storytelling celebration in early December.
As a Brookhaven resident for 14 years, McPherson is excited about some of the changes in the neighborhood, as more shops and restaurants open. The new emphasis on sidewalks and pedestrian traffic makes it easier for her to take long walks – her stress-busting activity of choice.
At St. Martin’s, she also can practice one of her favorite hobbies, gardening. In cooperation with two other churches and Oglethorpe University, the school and St. Martin’s Episcopal Church help maintain the Oglethorpe University-Brookhaven Community Garden. In six raised beds that measure 4 feet by 10 feet, the volunteers grow green beans, onions, tomatoes, eggplant and basil, among other things, during early spring, summer and fall growing seasons.
But the harvest is not for personal gain. It is distributed to needy families in the community through the Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church Food Pantry. McPherson admits, however, that at this time of year it’s difficult to keep up with the abundance of basil, so the chef at Oglethorpe uses the surplus in his campus cuisine.
Naturally, the garden is also part of the St. Martin’s community. Faculty members help with planting, maintaining and harvesting. And some students participate as part of their science curriculum.
For McPherson, it’s all about community.