EDMOND — Nancy Hetherington keeps a painting of her first fifth-grade class hanging near her desk. In 1995, they were the first to leave for middle school from St. Mary's Episcopal School in Edmond.
She keeps the picture up as a reminder of how the school has grown. After 23 years as head of school and more than 30 years working at St. Mary's, Hetherington will retire in May.
There have only been two heads of school, and the third will be named early next year. It's a position that takes passion, endless energy and abundant patience, Hetherington said. More than that, she said, it takes someone who's willing to grow and lead at the same time.
‘Make a difference'
“Your hope is that you have an opportunity to make a difference, and this school has given me that opportunity through my life's work.”
In the mid-1970s, the principal of St. Mary's, Susan Radke Craig, saw Hetherington, guitar in hand, leading a children's Bible study class. Craig offered her a job as a preschool teacher. Hetherington accepted and led classes for a few years until her youngest son was born.
She returned when her son entered St. Mary's as a student. In 1990, Hetherington took the helm after Craig's departure.
St. Mary's at that time offered preschool, kindergarten and first-grade classes. Hetherington set goals to add more grades and become accredited by the Southwest Association of Episcopal Schools.
In 1995, the school's main building burned. Even after a replacement was built, there was no room to grow. In 2006, the school relocated to 51 acres in north Edmond.
“I feel like my professional growth mirrored the growth of the school,” Hetherington said. “We both grew up together, so to speak.”
Growing and learning
In 35 years, the school has gone from offering half-days of early childhood courses to rotating fifth, sixth and seventh graders through core classes and arts, technology and physical education. Next fall it will add eighth grade, and school leaders hope to build a gym and a stage along with other new rooms.
Over time, the school has gained the little traditions that add life to learning. Some of the younger students recently wore construction-paper hats and gave a quick rendition of the Puritans' Thanksgiving. It's a common tradition in many schools, but Hetherington remembers when this one started.
“I started that,” she said. “I don't know when or why. Of course, the music teacher took it and made it so much better. It's just kind of survived, and the children love it.”
Hetherington didn't want to make a decision about retiring until it seemed right for her and for the school.
“I didn't want it to be situational,” she said. “I wanted it to be just because it's time and it's the right thing to do.”
A job where she claims 75 percent of each day's work is a surprise can't go on indefinitely.
“You know, I joke and say I'm ready to not learn a lesson every day,” she said.
Working as a team
Gayle Jones, director of development and marketing, met Hetherington in 1986. The parents' organization that year donated a bronze plaque of a butterfly with a cross over it to the school, fusing two symbols that she thinks sum up its mission. It is displayed on an outside wall of the new building.
That mission, of academic, spiritual and social growth, is why Jones signed on as an employee.
“(Change) is always needed in an organization to have creative minds and new techniques, but what I don't see changing is the mission of the school,” Jones said.
Billye Palmer has been teaching kindergarten at St. Mary's for 23 years. She said Hetherington's leadership, combined with a community of parents, students, teachers and supporters, has made the school what it is.
“I feel like she has set such a firm foundation that we will go on and excel in education,” Palmer said.
Applications are being accepted for a new head of school at St. Mary's Episcopal School. The deadline to apply is Dec. 15. Applications should be mailed to 505 E Covell Road, Edmond, OK 73034. For more information, go to www.smesedmond.org.