Ask founding Head of Middle School Marti Jenkins to recount a favorite memory of her twenty-five years at Cary Academy and she’s hard pressed to answer.
“That’s too hard; there are too many!” she exclaims with a laugh, before sharing a series of quick vignettes that spring to mind: The thrill of breaking ground on campus (and the nail-biting anxiety of getting the required certificate of occupancy the day before school opened). The excitement and nerves of traveling to local events (while eight-months pregnant) with little more than a series of watercolor renderings and an impassioned mission to entice prospective parents to enroll. The overwhelming sense of community at the opening day ceremony. And, the warm connections made with early families—those that were willing to make the leap of faith and join CA based on the strength of vision alone.
Of course, there are also the countless moments—small and large, challenging and cherished—that she has shared with students over the years that are close to her heart. While impossible to choose a favorite, she admits that graduation days are highlights, as are the many notes, emails, and visits from former students that come back as adults to say thank you or share stories of their success (particularly from those that might have struggled initially in Middle School, but ultimately found their place and flourished).
In her final weeks on CA’s campus, however, it is those early days that have been top of mind as she reflects on her journey.
Her eyes light up as she recalls them—pivotal moments that shaped CA’s foundations, long before the first bricks were laid. Together, they represent many intense hours spent collaborating shoulder-to-shoulder with an intrepid group of education visionaries, technologists, and operations experts that were tapped by Cary Academy Founders Jim and Ann Goodnight and John and Ginger Sall to design a ground-breaking, technology-forward, mold-busting middle school for the future.
For Jenkins, it was a time awash with the palpable promise of possibility.
“The opportunity to open a school is such a rare occurrence, such a wonderful opportunity for an educator,” enthuses Jenkins. “There was so much dreaming in that first year, so much exciting and inspiring brainstorming. We got to ask the big questions—the ones that matter. What would our mission be? What would an ideal middle school look like? How do we best serve the needs of our students?”
What emerged from those marathon planning sessions was, of course, the philosophical and physical blueprint for the Middle School we know today—one that broke significantly from the traditional junior-high model that was still prevalent at the time.
“Junior highs were generally envisioned as miniature high schools,” explains Jenkins. “Decisions—about curriculum, wellness, resources, etc.—were made with high-school students in mind and were expected to trickle down to the younger students.”
It was a model that was far less personal, far less human development-oriented and student-centered than middle school concept championed by Jenkins and embraced by CA’s founding leadership and faculty.
“We wanted something different. Instead, we started with a blank slate and the freedom and flexibility to focus specifically on the middle school-aged learner. We put them in the center and designed a program, a building, a school from there—one that would best meet their specific physical, emotional, intellectual, developmental, and social needs.”
A new blueprint
For Jenkins, that focus was personal. “I love Middle School-aged students. I love seeing them change on an hourly, daily, and annual basis. You might be talking to a student one day and that same student will be a little different the next day, just depending on the space they are in. At CA, we focused on developing a program that morphs around their needs, that meets them where they are and prepares and guides them for what comes next.
“I think from all my years here, that’s still what I am most proud of, what I find most exciting. We are true champions of the young adolescent learner,” reflects Jenkins.
Founding Middle School teacher, inaugural Service Learning Director, and CA parent, Tami Polge, remembers well the energy Jenkins brought to early planning and faculty meetings, facilitating lively discussions that would ultimately go on to shape the curriculum, culture, and lasting traditions of the Middle School. She credits Jenkins with setting a pioneering example—one that empowered faculty to dream big, lean into the CA mission, and innovate and collaborate in new and exciting ways.
“I’m grateful for Marti’s leadership—for setting a tone for the Middle School, one that put a high priority on team building, lifelong learning, and the spirit of adventure,” recalls Polge. “When we proposed a new curriculum, or even a whole new program such as service learning, when we pitched field trip ideas or events, or when we requested resources, Marti was actively listening and receptive. For some of the more ambitious ideas, she would have a twinkle in her eye, asking how it would further our mission and what we needed to pull it off.”
And so, under Jenkins’s guidance, the hallmarks of the student-centric CA Middle School experience emerged: a robust advisory program to support physical, social, and emotional growth; an integrated, interdisciplinary curriculum that would inspire curiosity and invite discovery of connections across content areas; and arts, world language, and physical education components that were integral, not elective, to encourage experimentation, safe risk-taking, and exploration. Most crucially, it would all be delivered by a supportive, rallying community of educators working together in grade-level teams to truly know and understand each student as an individual—their needs, passions, strengths, challenges, aspirations, and concerns—to ensure everyone had the best chance to thrive.
“Marti‘s gift to CA was designing a program that always kept Middle School children’s adolescent development at the forefront of our planning,” recalls former founding Head of School Don Berger. “She developed the Middle School team concept that still exists today and orchestrated the student-centered teaching that blended beautifully emerging technology with core academic skill development. She also made sure the arts were an integral part of all students’ learning—a major reason that CA is as renowned for its arts program as well as its technology.”
It was a forward-thinking vision that was shaped, in large part, by the culmination of Jenkins’s own history and experience as an educator in both independent and public schools across the United States.
Jenkins, who was born overseas, traveled extensively as a child, courtesy of her father’s engineering career. Igniting a love of travel, the arts, and of cultural exploration, these experiences would one day translate to an undergraduate degree in cultural anthropology with a minor in the arts from Vanderbilt University.
The varied elementary and secondary education experiences of her youth—including both public and private institutions, American and European—also sparked an interest in education and teaching that was only furthered after opportunities to work with children both in high school and college. It was a nascent interest that would later lead to the pursuit of a Master in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of New Orleans.
In that program, she discovered her true passion. “Working on my certifications, I just fell in love with teaching, with working with kids,” recalls Jenkins.
After graduation, she spent years teaching in schools across New Orleans, both independent and public, gaining important insights into the affordances of both—into what worked programmatically and organizationally, and what didn’t—lessons that she would ultimately bring to Cary Academy. She was particularly intrigued by opportunities to combine her passions—education and the arts—in curricular innovations.
“Teaching in New Orleans was a fabulous experience, but I realized right away that I could make more of an impact, have more opportunities to make changes, if I was a school administrator,” explains Jenkins. “I had a wonderful professor at the University of New Orleans that used to say ‘don’t ask why, ask why not.’ It always stuck with me.”
Asking ‘why not’?
Wanting to have the power to push the envelope and advocate for change—to ask ‘why not’ in the transformation of classrooms—she embarked on her second master’s degree. This time, she chose a Master of Education in Education Administration from the University of Texas at Austin which focused on the principalship level.
In Texas, she had opportunities to work in close collaboration with local school boards and communities, making recommendations for programmatic improvements. It was her first taste of effecting real change on the larger education landscape, of making education responsive to community and individual learner needs.
Happily, a successful trimester long culminating internship—as Assistant Principal in an elementary school in one of the top school districts in Texas—turned into a post-graduation invitation to take the position on a permanent basis. She was on her way.
Later, a move to Jackson, Mississippi for her husband’s career would prove serendipitous, coinciding with a career opportunity seemingly tailor made to her interests: a principalship for a new magnet public school program that combined academics and performing arts for grades four through twelve. As principal, Jenkins would transform the entire program, transitioning it from a pull-out model to an on-site program.
“It was exciting!” recalls Jenkins of her four years at the Power Academic and Performing Arts Complex. “We were partnering with the national advocacy organization Parents for Public Schools that was fighting flight from public schools. There were so many cool opportunities to work closely with the community, with the parents. I really valued that, just as I had in Texas.”
Indeed, for Jenkins, building something more than a mere school—but a true collaborative learning community—has always been paramount. If it was the promise of a blank slate and similar start-up vibe that initially drew her to Cary Academy, in part, it has been the incredible close-knit and mission-driven Cary Academy community that has encouraged her to stay all these years.
“As a community at CA, we all live and breathe our mission. I don’t think all schools can say that. Discovery, innovation, collaboration, and excellence—I see our mission in action constantly. I see it in the dedication and creativity of our faculty and staff, in the forward-thinking vision of our board, in the curiosity and personal growth of our students, and in the support from our wonderful families.” She stops to smile, “Who wouldn’t want to work in such an exciting environment, with such wonderful people?”
Fostering a sense of community—a sense of belonging—amongst the Middle School student body has also been crucial for Jenkins. Having moved many times during her childhood, it is not something that she herself experienced growing up. Recognizing that void in her own past has helped her to prioritize ensuring that her program supports students in authentically connecting with one another to find their place and people.
Cultivating that community is, of course, an important part of her legacy, but Jenkins is humble. She is quick to shift focus away from herself, spotlighting instead the “incredible” group of faculty and staff that she has helped develop over the years.
“It really is about the larger learning team. I view my role as minor compared to what the folks in the classrooms are doing. I’m just supporting that role, making sure their needs and the needs and interests of our program are met,” she offers.
“I’m proud to have built a place that attracts creative, energetic, student-centered, dedicated folks that love teaching Middle School and all it entails. It takes a unique person; not all educators can do it. When you’re working with this age, if something comes up—and it will—the content is not going to take first place; you have to be able to be flexible, to be able to set aside whatever you had planned for that day and, instead, meet them where they are. Sometimes, you have to put yourself in their shoes.”
“I think the best teachers are those that either had challenging experiences themselves as students, or had really wonderful experiences. Either way, they remember and bring the lessons learned from those experiences to the classroom in a powerful way,” she continues.
Longtime colleague and eighth-grade social studies teacher David Snively credits Jenkins with giving him the freedom and flexibility to do just that. “The guiding principle that I took from Marti was something she said to me way back in the 20th century: ‘Do what you think will be best for the students.’ That directive gave permission for all sorts of stuff, from simulations to trips,” offers Snively.
“The message provided a constant, consistent signpost pointing towards an endless number of paths to follow and explore. For me, I think that message is what makes our program so special, and I thank Marti for making it the foundation on which the Middle School is based.”
As any good educator, Jenkins evaluates her success and the program she helped to found and build through the lens of her students.
“Kids showing up every day, happy to be here, wanting to come back every day. Former students that come back and say ‘I just loved Middle School.’ Feedback from new parents that say ‘this is such a change for my child, they’re excited about getting up and coming to school’—these are huge for Middle School,” offers Jenkins. “I love watching as our students grow, get older, and go through the Upper School with a critical eye, one that is truly reflective of their own voice and thinking, their own perspective; that feels like success.”
A success, indeed, and one that Laneta Dorflinger, a longtime member of CA’s Board of Directors, credits to Jenkins.
“I have had the good fortune of witnessing Marti’s visionary leadership through two lenses: as a parent and as a Board member,” reflects Dorflinger. “Always pleasant, calm, and in control, Marti embodies a rare combination of experience and qualities, including an unwavering commitment to CA’s mission and students, that has always inspired a strong sense of confidence in her leadership and the Middle School she helped to create.”
“Cary Academy owes Marti a debt of gratitude,” agrees Head of School Mike Ehrhardt. “With dedication and vision, she has helped build a remarkable foundation for our Middle School—one that sets us apart and on which we can build for the next 25 years.”
The future ahead
Now, as Jenkins looks toward retirement—a decision influenced by pandemic-inspired reflection—she’s excited to spend more time with her family, with her husband and stalwart support of over forty years, David, and her two daughters, CA alums Quinn ’12 and Anna ’15, and a grandchild on the way.
After dedicating so much time and energy to CA, she’s looking forward to crossing some long-postponed items off her bucket list. Ever the lifelong learner, she’s working towards getting a master gardeners certification—“It’s all about the chemistry,” she explains—and anticipating a long-awaited return to travel, including a tour of the United States by motorcycle and the intracoastal waterways of North Carolina by boat.
The moment is admittedly bittersweet. Undoubtedly, she will miss her colleagues, in particular, her office staff and those faculty with whom she has worked side-by-side so closely all these years.
“That first year, we cut a piece out of the foundation of the Middle School building, and some of us have those bricks hanging on our walls,” Jenkins reflects. The people that have those bricks, and all the others that helped build the foundations of this program, a program that is so wonderful because of their efforts—I will miss them.”
And, of course, she’s gets a little misty thinking about precious moments with students—those that are so quintessentially Middle School: the din of excited voices in the hallway, a random saxophone solo that trickles into her windows from a student waiting for pickup, and all the impactful one-on-one conversations she’s had over the years from which she has learned so much.
“There is so much wisdom in our students’ voices, so many important insights they have to share,” says Jenkins. “If we really listen to what they are saying, really give their voices the consideration and weight they deserve, we can learn and do amazing things—not only for them, but for us as educators, and as an institution.”
Rest assured, retirement does not mean Jenkins won’t be watching eagerly to see what comes next, to see exactly what CA is learning and we will respond as a community. With unwavering faith in the mission and the school she pioneered, she smiles: “I have no doubt that it is going to be amazing.