Mary Harwell has seen many changes in nearly three decades with the Forsyth County school system. Now, she’s ready to make one of her own.
Having worked with the system since 1980, the outgoing associate superintendent’s newest challenge will be “which book I’m going to read” after she retires this month.
“I plan on reading a lot of fiction,” she said.
Harwell started her career as a school secretary in southeast Georgia's Wheeler County. But when she moved with her husband to Pike County,
Harwell decided to get a college degree and become a teacher.
“I was kind of a late bloomer,” she said. “I went back to school at 25 and got my degree when I was 28.”
Her first teaching job was in Pike. Soon after, husband Al took a teaching and coaching job at what was then Forsyth County High School.
“So we moved here and that’s where we’ve been ever since,” she said.
Harwell began teaching at Cumming Elementary School, but soon set her sights on a leadership role. She pursued an administrative degree before becoming an assistant principal at the school.
“I worked for some great principals there and some great leadership,” she said. “But you see things you might want to do different.
“I was [assistant principal] at Cumming for several years, and then when Daves Creek Elementary opened up, I moved ... there.”
Opening new schools has become an exact science in Forsyth County. But when Daves Creek debuted, there was more chaos involved, Harwell said. It made for one of her most memorable experiences in the school system.
“There were a lot of challenges with the opening of that school. The building wasn’t ready, but we had a great staff,” she said. “We were sweeping floors and mopping floors the day we opened.
“It was just a magical year. We pulled everything together and made it happen.”
It was also during that opening when Harwell said she realized “it was something I was good at.” From there, she helped open Settles Bridge and then Matt elementary schools.
About five years ago, Harwell settled into her current role as associate superintendent.
She admits she misses daily interactions with students, but she’s also become good friends with others in the administrative office.
“It’s going to be so sad on me when Mary leaves, because we’ve just been the best of friends for so long,” said Judi Jenkins, the district's business and community relations facilitator. “It’s not going to be the same without her.”
Jenkins and Harwell first met at Cumming Elementary where they worked together for about nine years.
“She has a passion for kids, a passion for learning and I’ve learned a lot from Mary,” Jenkins said.
Of all the education jobs she’s had, Harwell said her favorite was being a principal.
“I’ve had special relationships with my staffs at every one of those schools. They were like my work families,” she said. “I loved being around kids.
You miss that when you come to the county office.”
Education has changed significantly in Forsyth County since Harwell joined the system. From curriculum changes to the way the district grades and reports, everything is “very different than the way it used to be."
“Education has always been important to the people, but I think they’ve started being more involved with the education process,” she said.
Changes accelerated as recently as a decade ago, when the system was about one-third its current size.
“Hopefully, we’ve made things better for the education of students in Forsyth County," Harwell said. "Just being a part of that has been a wonderful, wonderful experience.
“It felt like I got on a fast train about 10 years ago and I haven’t stopped since.”
Going from long days to a clear calendar will be a difficult transition for Harwell, who said she's worked since age 16. But getting to spend more time with her two grown daughters and four grandchildren, all of whom live in Forsyth, is a great place to start.
“She’s just got the biggest heart of anybody,” Jenkins said of her colleague. “She does have high expectations, but she sets the example and models the way.
"She’s a good friend, good educator and she’s going to be missed.”