Upon entering Chris Barry’s office in the SAU 46 building, visitors are faced with a winged, comfy blue chair adjacent to her desk.
It resides near a handwritten poster reading “If relationships improve, things get better.” It’s where Barry invites people to sit and chat. After 43 years of building relationships with students, staff, administrators and parents in the Merrimack Valley School District, that chair will be there only a little longer.
Barry is set to retire June 30.
Superintendent Mark MacLean said the chair will likely go into Business Administrator Robin Heins’s office, who, after Barry leaves, will be one of the longest-serving employees left in the district at 33 years.
“I’m going to miss being able to walk up the hall and just talk,” Heins said of Barry. “She just grounds you.”
The Franklin native said her love of public education began long before she was old enough to be hired.
“My father was an immigrant,” Barry said. He arrived in New Hampshire at age 13 from Greece, she said., “He attributes success to the public education he got. It was always valued growing up.”
She studied education at Boston University, and after some traveling she landed a teaching job at Loudon Elementary School.
“My plan was to work for two years,” Barry said. “I wanted to work in the schools overseas, and you need two years of experience.”
But after those couple years at Loudon, Barry “got hooked.” Teaching eventually led to her role as the school’s principal, and after that, assistant superintendent for the district.
During all that time, it’s the relationships that stand out, Barry said. Some of them have been maintained far beyond when the other person left Merrimack Valley School District, like the former student Barry had her second year of teaching who shows up each year on her birthday.
“I don’t even know how she found out when my birthday was,” Barry said.
Loudon paraprofessional Robin Robinson called Barry her “very best friend in the whole world” more than 30 years after the pair met. Robinson was serving students in the hot lunch line at the time, and Barry was the elementary school’s second-grade teacher.
Robinson said that in addition to being fun to be around, Barry has always been good at listening and helping others to solve their problems.
“She talked things through with you,” Robinson said.
Andover Elementary School Principal Jane Slayton said Barry’s ability to work with others was visible even to those who didn’t know her well, people like herself before she worked for SAU 46.
“Chris is one of the reasons I came to Andover,” Slayton said. “I used to go to different educational conferences and she would be there with her team from MV and they were great, vibrant, collaborative, and I wanted to become part of that.”
“I think whenever you have relationships, its easier to solve problems,” Barry said. And over the decades she’s worked in education, she said, there have been plenty of challenges as the public education institution has evolved from something purely academic to one that addresses children facing family crises.
Today is a far cry from the 1970s, when Barry recalled the school nurse visited the 100 Loudon elementary students once a week and hot lunch was driven from Merrimack Valley High School to the elementary school each day by a van.
“It’s a changing expectation,” Barry said. “Right now there are a lot of kids in transition or living in stressful situations, whether their parents are facing drug issues or court issues. The expectation is for the school to deal with all of these.”
Many of Barry’s former and current colleagues commended her on the policy and curriculum work she’s done to keep up with all these changes, all the while keeping the child in mind.
“She had that really good perspective when you kind of get in that tailspin,” Mike Jette, former MV High School principal, said. “She did have that ability to say, ‘Okay, what’s right for kids?’ ”
In order to serve younger children better, Barry advocated for kindergarten in the district, which was added first as a part-time, then a full-time program in recent years.
These days, Barry said she feels the district is in a good place, which is why she feels ready to leave. She did acknowledge, however, the current and future challenges for MVSD: funding decreases and legislative proposals for school vouchers, plus a particularly vocal group that shows up at school board meetings.
“I’m having a harder and harder time with the contentious public,” she said. In her mind, their efforts appear aimed towards dismantling public education, something Barry has been and always will be a staunch champion of.
“I think it’s distracting and disruptive,” she said. “But it’s my job to keep it away from the classroom – that’s what I do. Keep it away from the classroom and the teachers so they can take care of the kids.”
It will be her job for just a little longer. Upon retirement, Barry said, she plans to continue with the plans she made as a young adult.
“Now, I’ll travel again,” she said.