Mettawee’s founding principal retiring

T wo quotes, heard decades apart, sum up the relationship Nancy Mark and the Mettawee Community School have forged with the people of Pawlet, West Pawlet and Rupert over the last 14 years.

“The first day the school opened, we had a celebration. We do every year, but this one was special,” said Mark, who will retire at the end of this school year. “This one boy walked in, he was in fourth or fifth grade, and he looked around and asked, ‘They built this for us? This is for us?’ It was so touching.”

Years later, as she was waiting for a spaghetti dinner to start, Mark talked to one of the community’s older members. “He was a grandfather, and he was waiting for his family to come from out of town,” Mark said. “When they got there, he said. ‘I am so glad you came. I wanted to show you my school.’ That’s what he said, that it was his school. I just got shivers after that.”

Mark became principal in Pawlet in 1988, and 10 years later, when Pawlet and Rupert merged schools to create Mettawee, she was hired as its first, and so far only, principal. As parents, teachers and students enter the building, they pass a plaque on the right that lists everyone involved in designing and building the facility in 1998, including the founding principal

Behind that wall is the principal’s office. After this school year ends, for the first time, the name on the principal’s office door will be different from the name on the plaque.

“It was time,” said Mark, whose close-knit school of just under 200 students has 49 percent of its students on free or reduced lunches yet still consistently turns in high school on state tests. “The most important thing for me is for people to know what a privilege it has been to work with the community.”

In July, Brook DeBonis, a first- and second-grade teacher at the school and a graduate of Granville High School, will take over as principal, leaving Mark and her husband Joe more time to visit their grandchildren and get involved in community activities in their home town of Castleton. Mark’s husband is retiring as academic dean at Castleton State College.

“I think Brook is going to do a wonderful job,” Mark said. “She has the advantage of being involved in our school as an instructional leader.

Mark said she is busier now than she has ever been. “I want to leave everything in place, polished and ready to go.”

It was her husband’s job at Castleton that brought Mark to the area and, accidentally, led her into education. “I registered our daughter Molly at the Apple Tree Children’s Center in Castleton and that led to becoming the director there for five years. I focused on upgrading curriculum, and added Head Start and teacher training. Additionally, I concentrated on fundraising and connecting with people in the community.” She followed that by selling real estate, and during that time Mark, who has a BA in English literature and a master’s in education, began to think about getting back into education. That led her to the principal’s post at Pawlet Elementary School.

“The community was so welcoming,” she said of her start in 1988. “I noted how hard-working the faculty was right away. They took so much pride in the school.”

When asked about the biggest changes in the more than two decades she has been principal, Mark immediately pointed to technology.

“That’s been one of the greatest areas of growth, the way we have been able to use technology in the classroom. We have been able to get grants and we have leveraged the technology for better learning,” she said, pointing out that every student in fifth- and sixth-grade is issued a netbook computer. “For a small, rural school, with a high percentage of students in poverty, our students get an excellent education with technology.”

Gail Nelson, an administrative assistant who worked with Mark for 22 years, remembers that first day and how impressed she was by one of the first things Mark did.

“I remember her coming into the office, such as it was, and saying she thought I probably had some issues as we did not have a principal during the previous school year. When she saw that we would be sharing the same small office together, one of the first things she did was make the storeroom, which was much bigger than the room that we used for the office, the main office,” she said. “I remember how nice it was to walk into the new office each morning and thinking it was more like a real school now. I thought, ‘Wow, this is going to be a great relationship’.”

Teacher Cindi Roberts said Mark’s relationship with the community goes far outside educating its youth.

“Families know they can reach out to the school if they lack heat or food for their families. She has driven children to events that they would not otherwise be able to attend if she didn’t take them,” Roberts said. “We really are a community school. Nancy has done all of these things with a feeling of fun and excitement.”

That community connection is one of Mark’s proudest legacies.

“When we built the school, we knew we were going to have the community in the center, so we put ‘community’ in the center of the name,” she said. “It’s their school. That has always been at the heart of what we do. It’s a joy to see community members using our school.”

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