Change has been a constant throughout Ethel Schoeffner Principal Mary Schmidt’s life and career. Not only has the veteran educator been around for the construction of both New Sarpy Elementary and the school she now heads, but she also saw St. Charles Parish develop from a rural outgrowth of New Orleans into a burgeoning area of its own.
And she might not have gotten the chance to see any of that if she had actually stuck with her first major – journalism.
Schmidt was born and raised inside the parish and spent her childhood on a farm in St. Rose. She eventually headed off to Nicholls State University and married right after graduation. Returning home to St. Charles, Schmidt and her husband were among the first to buy a lot in Ormond Plantation – for a cool $9,000.
“When I was a child, Ormond was a cow pasture for the owner of Brown’s Velvet Dairy,” Schmidt said. “The area where Schoeffner is was a swamp. We built our house on the combined salaries of a teacher and a policeman and raised three amazing children in it.”
While at Nicholls State, where she was attending on a four-year scholarship, Schmidt majored in journalism. Things soon changed.
“At the time, NSU only offered two years of journalism and then students had to transfer to LSU,” Schmidt said. “Not wanting to give up two years of my scholarship, I searched the catalog for an alternative major.
“Special education jumped out at me and I have never regretted the switch.”
What began as an easy way to keep her scholarship, soon turned into her passion.
“My first love was special education,” Schmidt said. “I’ve always said that you really learn how to teach when you teach children who struggle to learn.”
That mantra first got its start in 1984, when Schmidt was hired as a special education teacher at St. Rose Primary. Her journey then took her to the newly built New Sarpy Elementary, where she was a charter faculty member, to the newly built Ethel Schoeffner.
During her nine years as a special education teacher, Schmidt taught children with learning disabilities, emotional disabilities, physical disabilities and even gifted children.
Though her time in education also consisted of stops as both a third grade teacher and a fifth grade teacher, Schmidt eventually jumped up to administration. Now, she will be starting her eighth year as principal of Ethel Schoeffner.
“The children inspire me because every one of them is important and every one of them deserves the best we have to offer,” Schmidt said. “I loved being a teacher and I was never sure I was making the right move when I gave up my classroom for administration.
“I could not imagine what it would be like not to be someone’s teacher.”
Though Schmidt found it tough to give up her classroom, another part of her also found it difficult to leave behind her long-ago journalism roots.
“My favorite job was as a fifth grade writing teacher,” Schmidt said. “At the time, writing was a relative weakness across our district.”
Carolyn Woods, who was the curriculum supervisor at the time, asked Schmidt to pilot a new program called Parallel Block.
“The idea was for me to teach all fifth graders at my school to become authentic writers and also to love reading,” Schmidt said. “It was an energizing challenge and 150 fifth graders came into my classroom every day to write, revise, read, discuss, edit and publish. I was able to touch a lot of lives with that job and I got affirming feedback from my students and their parents.”
Over the past seven years though, Schmidt has fallen in love with the administrative duties of her job. Because of her prior experience at Ethel Schoeffner, Schmidt says she was able to “hit the ground running” when she first took the reigns.
She hasn’t slowed down since.
“Ultimately, I want Ethel Schoeffner to become a four-star school,” Schmidt said. “The State Department of Education currently gives us a three-star accountability rating based on a complex calculation of data and the four-star schools tend to be magnet schools or university lab schools.
“I intend to see Ethel Schoeffner become a four-star school all the while celebrating our wonderfully diverse school population.”
To accomplish that task, Schmidt plans to build a united team to plan for school improvement and keep that plan alive all year long.
“It will take a dynamic staff, a strong and knowledgeable central office/School Board, dedicated parents, a supportive community and eager students,” Schmidt said.
She believes those building blocks are currently in place and that fourth star is within Ethel Schoeffner’s reach.
But Schmidt’s slate is full without even trying to attain that final star.
An average day for her starts at 7 a.m. when she checks emails and chats with the staff. When the kids arrive at 7:50 a.m., she tries to greet each one of them as they enter. Ten minutes later, Schmidt is rushing through the halls visiting classrooms.
“I love to talk to the students when I visit,” she said. “I want to know what they think they are learning from the lesson and why they think it is important to learn that. Their responses are good measures as to the success of the lesson.”
However, school is not the only place where she gets the chance to interact with the students. Her husband, who serves as watch commander of the parish Sheriff’s Office, used to coach little league.
“So, between the two of us, we know all of our neighbors and most of the community,” Schmidt said. “The people in our parish care about the quality of their lives and especially the lives of their children.
“It is humbling to have a role in the lives of so many.”