MAHOMET — Newly selected as the next Middletown Prairie Elementary principal, Ryan Martin has a pretty basic philosophy: continue excellence at the school and improve upon it.
“My No. 1 goal is to continue building the relationships I’ve built this year with staff, with students, with community. I think that’s my biggest strength, and I want to continue working on that,” said Martin, who has been assistant principal at Middletown for the 2018-19 school year. “I want this particular building, being the first experience for many kids (in school) — I want it to be a great experience for them. I want to create that environment which we already have, but continue to grow it.”
The Mahomet-Seymour school board announced March 29 that Martin will take over for Wendy Starwalt, who resigned earlier in March. She had served as principal for two years, since 2017, according to Superintendent Lindsey Hall. Starwalt declined an interview with the Citizen.
The school accommodates students in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and grades 1 and 2. Martin starts the job on July 1.
“I’m very excited about it. I am about every emotion you can probably think of: nervous, but I think I have the confidence that I am going to figure it all out,” he said. “The staff here has been great and understanding that I am going to need some time to figure some things out. We’re going to get together and help each other out, and that’s how I am and I think they are for me too.”
Martin taught elementary school for 17 years before stepping into the assistant principal role at Middletown last year. He’s a graduate of the UI, earning a bachelor’s in elementary education and a master’s in educational organizational leadership. He has helped coach high school boys’ basketball for more than a dozen years in Mahomet-Seymour before joining the elementary school staff in the district.
The first of the current school year was a little rough, he recalled, due to the melding of Middletown and Sangamon schools.
“I think things are going well compared to the beginning of the year just because of the move,” Martin said. “The move from Sangamon over to Middletown ... we had to live in this space to figure it out. I think we’re still doing that to a point. I think at this point, I feel really good about where the students are, where the teachers are, where the staff is.”
Middletown is home to about 780 students now, and Martin wants to bring a family type of feel to his new leadership role.
“I really want this to be family-oriented,” he said. “I always taught my students in my class — I said, ‘This is a family.’ I coached my players as ... ‘We’re a family.’ I want this building to feel like a family.”
Martin’s own family includes wife, Lisa, a high school teacher and junior high cross-country coach for Mahomet-Seymour; daughter Hannah, 10, who’s in the fourth grade; and daughter Ashley, 7, who’s in the first grade at Middletown. A new baby is on the way for the Martins, expected in September.
“I grew up here,” Martin said, noting his wife has been in the Mahomet-Seymour district since she graduated from college. “I’m excited. I’m honored. I’m blessed to be in a position I’m in right now. I grew up in this town, and left, and then came back, and it’s a place I want to raise my kids, it’s the place I am raising my kids. I’m proud to be in this building, proud that my kids are going to go through this building, so I’m excited.”
His philosophy as an administrator and how educators in his kind of post can help in the classrooms comes down to helping teachers as they are “reaching each kid where they’re at.
“Every kid learns at a different speed, or different rates,” Martin said. “(I want to) help teachers identify and then come up and collaborate to see how we can come up with solutions.”
There was discussion in the recent school board race about class sizes. Martin said, for example, Middletown’s kindergarten classrooms host about 22 children apiece.
“We are growing, there’s no doubt about that, which I think is a great thing,” he said. “This building is brand new — we’re very lucky to be here. It’s state of the art. Safety was a big part of the thought process with this building.”
For now, he’s focused first on the changes that come from being the principal versus the assistant.
“I think that’s a huge jump. It really is,” Martin said. “In my assistant role, I always had Mrs. Starwalt to look to. That’s going to be on me next year. I’m very lucky to have people who I can rely on in the district — other administrators who I’ve gotten to know well and I knew before coming into this role. They’ve all reached out to me and said whatever I need, they’re a phone call away.
“I’m thrilled at the support I’m receiving right now from the community, from staff, from students,” Martin added. “That makes me feel supported, gives me the confidence that I need to say, ‘I don’t know,’ at times and that be OK.
“I’m going to stub my toe. I’m not going to be perfect. And I think my staff will be very helpful with that and supportive and understanding, and I think parents will as well. They’ve been great with my transition to this role, and I feel like that’s going to happen going into the next role.”