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Colleagues laud departing Merrimack Valley School District superintendent’s legacy

  • Merrimack Valley superintendent Mike Martin (center) received a glass golf club from school board administrators as a retirement gift during the annual meeting on Thursday, March 6, 2014 at Merrimack Valley High School.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Merrimack Valley superintendent Mike Martin (center) received a glass golf club from school board administrators as a retirement gift during the annual meeting on Thursday, March 6, 2014 at Merrimack Valley High School.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Merrimack Valley superintendent Mike Martin (right) recieved a standing ovation from administrators during the annual meeting on Thursday, March 6, 2014 at Merrimack Valley High School after he was presented with a commemorative golf club in honor of his retirement.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Merrimack Valley superintendent Mike Martin (right) recieved a standing ovation from administrators during the annual meeting on Thursday, March 6, 2014 at Merrimack Valley High School after he was presented with a commemorative golf club in honor of his retirement.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Merrimack Valley superintendent Mike Martin (center) received a glass golf club from school board administrators as a retirement gift during the annual meeting on Thursday, March 6, 2014 at Merrimack Valley High School.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Merrimack Valley superintendent Mike Martin (right) recieved a standing ovation from administrators during the annual meeting on Thursday, March 6, 2014 at Merrimack Valley High School after he was presented with a commemorative golf club in honor of his retirement.<br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

The most noticeable changes in the Merrimack Valley School District hint at Superintendent Michael Martin’s legacy.

Ten years ago, there was the $20 million districtwide construction bond that helped renovate the high school for the first time since it was built in 1967. Now, the high school has a varsity football team and a marching band to support it, as well as a mascot, The Pride, which replaced a potentially controversial Native American logo.

Merrimack Valley is also now a two-board district, a transition from a three-board district ushered in seamlessly with Martin’s help.

“People tend to see the concrete things, but there is a lot more to it,” said Assistant Superintendent Christine Barry.

After more than 35 years in education, including 15 in Merrimack Valley, Martin will retire when his contract expires tomorrow. His successor, Mark McLean, will begin next week and carry the momentum in a district that includes Boscawen, Loudon, Penacook, Salisbury and Webster.

If Martin had his way, his legacy would be defined by the work done on behalf of the students.

“I’m proud as a peach about all the facility improvements and the game fields and everything else, but I’d rather be defined by the work we’ve done to improve student learning,” he said last week.

Martin leaves a district in the midst of multiyear rollout of the International Baccalaureate program, which some have criticized for its cost and a curriculum that was developed in Switzerland. But Martin has been steadfast in his support for the program, and in a few years, Merrimack Valley will be the first to have one for grades K-12. The baccalaureate program emphasizes a balance between developing an open mind, caring and reflective approaches and the mastery of academic materials.

Martin also championed access to education for drop-out students by supporting the CSI Charter School, and after a lengthy and thorough community engagement process, voters approved full-day kindergarten, which will begin next year.

“He has moved the school district forward in a manner that could not have happened without his longevity and without the people he brought in to assist him,” said school board Chairman Mark Hutchins. “Twenty-five years ago, MV did not have a particularly good reputation. It is largely to Mike’s credit we are what we are now.”

Quiet leadership and collaboration have been hallmarks of Martin’s tenure, colleagues said.

Hutchins was elected to the school board less than a year after Martin started. He remembers seeing a superintendent who was sure of himself, and one who managed quietly from behind the scenes. His ideas, while often good ones, were never trumpeted publicly or gloated about.

“I liked his management style from the start,” Hutchins said. “I think everything was done collaboratively, which I find to be the best management style.”

The approach worked and Merrimack Valley has a strong district staff and administrative team, Martin said.

“You hope, at least I hope, that it wasn’t all about one person and it was about a lot of people, and a lot of support. I think it’s bottom-up leadership instead of top-down leadership,” Martin said.

His contributions weren’t limited to the district. He served on the New Hampshire School Administrators Association executive board and represents the state on the American Association of School Administrators. In 2010, the state board named him the superintendent of the year.

“He’s just a great example of our motto, which is to be a champion for our children,” said Mark Joyce, executive director of the state school administrators association. He’s led change in a diverse district, he added.

Martin has helped build a sense of community between Merrimack Valley towns, a challenge in some regional school districts, Joyce said.

“When you’re with a co-op or regional district, you are constantly having to build a broad community team,” Joyce said. “That’s challenging but also offers a great opportunity.”

Martin has welcomed that opportunity, overseeing the district’s first long-range plan and mentor program that pairs veteran and rookie educators.

“Some people who didn’t get off to a good start in the profession could get discouraged and leave. That was the whole notion for the mentor program,” Martin said. “Our goal is through supervision to help people become successful. Quality teachers make a positive difference in student learning.”

Before making decisions, Martin sought input from the staff and the community.

When building a new high school was considered in 2004, Martin helped bring forward a plan for significant renovations at a third of the cost of a new building.

“I think it was the right decision, and I think people have recognized that,” Hutchins said.

Full-day kindergarten wasn’t presented to voters until a task force with members from all five communities recommended it.

“It was always an informed decision-making process,” Barry said.

Martin didn’t micromanage, she added, but he encouraged staff to remember they were working as part of a team.

“Individuals were always aware of that,” Barry said. “If there is success in the district, because of his leadership style, we feel like we are a part of that success.”

(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or iwilson@cmonitor.com)

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