Wright revisits her tenure at school district
With summer in full swing, Northwestern Lehigh School District’s newly retired superintendent, Dr. Mary Anne Wright, is reflective about her career in education and enthusiastic about the future.
“My tenure was 27 years plus,” said a relaxed Wright, surrounded by her family.
Wright recalled “subbing in the winter of ’86 when her children attended elementary school at Northwestern.
“I believe David was in third and Rachel was in fourth,” Wright said.
From the beginning, Wright was determined to have a career.
“I started college when the kids were 3 and 4,” she recalled. “I started at LCCC and transferred to Kutztown and graduated in December 1985. I was the first one in my family to go to college.”
Opportunities for women were limited some 40 years ago.
“Back then, it was secretary, nurse or a teacher,” she said.
Originally, Wright applied to and was accepted at Albert Einstein in Philadelphia, but taking classes in anatomy and physiology put her off to nursing.
Due to her affinity for children, teaching became a viable option.
“I’ve got two kids and they’re little,” Wright said. “What can I do taking my young family into consideration,” she asked herself, “And then I started teaching and really liked it.”
Perseverance coupled with support was a winning combination for Wright.
“It’s been a ‘we’ forever,” said Wright, about her husband. “I couldn’t have gotten through college without his support.”
Soon after, Wright went to work for the Northwestern Lehigh School District.
“In 1986, I was hired to start a pre-first grade and to develop the program,” Wright said.
“Mary Ellen Kmetz taught me what to do with the kids and we went to work.”
All these years later, Wright could still rattle off the names of her first students, who included Brett Snyder and Tia Carey.
“It was a readiness program and I taught it for three years in a portable [classroom],” she said.
Wright went on to teach sixth grade before working as principal and later, assistant superintendent for three years at Northwestern, before being hired as the superintendent at Salisbury.
“It was a blessing in disguise but what a learning experience,” Wright said about her move to Salisbury. “The people were the same and parent support was the same.
“There were so many similarities, and yet, they were a little more hands off.
“[Because] their address is in Allentown, they were more of an urban school with a lot more diversity, more poverty and a different leadership approach.”
All in all, Wright’s initial experience as superintendent at Salisbury was a positive one.
“They were looking for something different,” Wright stated.
“The board was fabulous, wanting to hear my input and willing to do what they needed to do to make their district better.”
One of the biggest initiatives at Salisbury was to separate ninth grade from the middle school and make it part of the high school experience.
“Though they debated, they were willing to work with the proposal,” she said. “I learned so much there from the bottom up and developing trust became a priority.”
“It was an awesome five years, but then Greg Snyder called me and said [Northwestern] wanted me to come back,” she explained.
“They were looking for a different kind of stability and I brought back new ideas. When I first came back, the board was very receptive.”
But a political change was in the offing.
“With the tea party movement, education started to get a really bad rap,” Wright said.
“We were held up as a government agency accused of wasteful spending. I look back and say I learned a lot from that. It was a very interesting time and I tried to stay above the fray.”
Wright said the life of a superintendent is only viable for two years.
“Every new board member comes on with new ideas and it becomes challenging to try to minimize the impact of one or two,” Wright said. “Board members don’t stay forever. They bring different views and opinions but have the same end product in mind. It’s OK to want to be fiscally responsible, as long as that’s not done in isolation.”
Wright said true leadership is about perseverance, honesty and integrity.
“Sometimes we’re charged with leading people that don’t want to be led,” Wright said. “I had to believe the good would prevail.
“You have to believe that, and hope there’s something on the other side of the struggle.”
Wright’s optimism was sustained by Northwestern’s educators.
“I had good people in leadership positions who were willing to fight the cause for our kids,” Wright said. “The principals kept things moving. You do what you have to do to weather the changes. Then the education community flipped the board around and things changed.
“I had the pleasure of working with the best people in the world. “I really believe we’re back on a good path which makes me much more comfortable.”
Wright said with this peace of mind, it was time for her to leave.
“It was the right time for me to leave because we have a very supportive board,” Wright said.
“I was able to mentor Jen [Holman] who wants the right end product. It was time.”
Over the years, there are many initiatives Wright is proud of implementing, including those that have equipped students with laptops in a one-to-one initiative.
“It’s wonderful for kids to have that tool but it shouldn’t be the focus,” she said.
In September, Northwestern will fulfill one of Wright’s long held wishes.
“Full day kindergarten is probably what I’m most proud of,” Wright said. “Full day kindergarten with a developmental focus will include purposeful play where children can learn how to communicate and negotiate.
“[With] the push toward testing and curriculum we often didn’t include those life skills.
“[Sometimes], it’s easy to lose sight of the educational process [by putting more] emphasis on the test.”
According to Wright, young students need “to develop the ability to deal with their stress.
“By the end of the elementary experience, students will be a little less intense about testing,” Wright said. “We will be able to help kids value their education.”
Wright has already turned the page, helping to provide an internship experience for those preparing to train for superintendent positions.
“Starting in August, I’ll be teaching one class and maybe doing school visits,” she said. “I used to teach at Lehigh before my attention was needed at the district.”
Looking a few months into the future, Wright said travel in January is part of the plan.
“We’re going south and west for a couple of months. We used to camp all the time when the kids were little,” she said but this time, she and her husband will be traveling in style. “We bought it last year,” she said pointing to her new camper with a wide grin.
“I feel good. I feel positive about education and positive about Northwestern. I know that the district is going to do great things.”