Ten years ago I plunged into the world of K-12 public education. It’s been a remarkable journey. I’ve met amazing people who have become dear friends.
None more so that Marha Peek, who retires the end of June as superintendent of the Mobile County school system, the largest in the state with nearly 54,000 students. Her own journey in education began in 1972 when she got her first job teaching elementary school at Alba in Bayou La Batre, her hometown. Her interest in working with children came naturally. Her grandmother taught on Dauphin Island in 1908, taking a schooner to the island.
And Alma Bryant high school is named after a great aunt. (Peek is hopeful that a cousin now at the University of Mobile will be the next in her family to work with the local system.)
Peek always has a smile in her voice and one on her face and can disarm most critics. But don’t be deceived, she does not suffer fools wisely, especially those who don’t consider children first and foremost.
She was named superintendent in 2012. And even this was in many regards testimony to how she approached her entire career. Never flashy, just dependable and hard-working. She was deputy superintendent in 2011 when Roy Nichols retired. She did not apply for the top job. The board did one national search and could not agree on a candidate. They tried again, with the same results. Then they realized the most qualified candidate was already on staff and they named Peek superintendent.
Editor’s note: no doubt my affection for Martha is impacted by the fact that she grew up a few miles from our little farm in south Mobile County and if my figuring is correct, I was in the eighth grade at Alba when she was in the first grade there. Plus she worked as assistant principal with my good friend and high school classmate, Tina Nelson, at South Brookley elementary many years ago. A few months ago the three of us got together and I laughed for nearly two hours as they told tall tales.)
Even today, it is apparent that Peek’s passion for working with children is as strong as ever. Her eyes sparkle and her tone intensifies as she calls students by name and recounts their stories of struggle and success. She talks about how the world has changed since she was a brand-new teacher in 1972. “Kids today are dealing with so many social and emotional issues now,” she says. “And though too many don’t understand it, education is so much more than just drilling to take another test.”
She recalls when the public viewed teachers with respect, almost even reverence. “That is no longer true and stress on teachers has never been greater,” she says. “For some reason, people don’t seem to understand the importance of education these days. And every dad gummed politician thinks they have all the answers for education.”
A good friend has always referred to Martha Peek as E. F. Hutton, telling me that “when she talks, I listen.” I certainly agree. She made her mark on thousands and thousands of lives.
A lot of folks will miss her when she goes home. I’m just glad I have her cell number.