By SHELLY WILKISON
He had only been on the job a short time when students at Liberty Hill High School got their first glimpse of their new principal in action.
It was a school assembly where the varsity football players were being presented with their state championship rings.
Mabry said he looked up into the bleachers and saw the beginnings of a fight between two girls. Hitting every other step, he quickly climbed up to separate them.
Those who saw the rucous were quickly impressed with Mabry’s quick reaction and willingness to put himself in harm’s way to protect others in the bleachers. The school was immediately abuzz with the retelling of the almost superhero-like response of the new principal.
Absent the drama almost five years later, Mabry laughs as he recalls what really happened.
“As I grabbed the arm of one of the girls, I lost my balance and for a second, thought I was going to fall down the bleachers,” he said, adding that he was somehow able to steady himself without taking a dive.
With all eyes on the commotion, if Mabry had been a little less agile and taken the tumble, the superhero perception could have easily been replaced by a clutzier version of the newcomer from North Texas.
Mabry, whose serious and professional side is the one most commonly seen by students and faculty, laughs at the notion.
A few weeks shy of his five-year anniversary as principal, Mabry learned that he had been named Principal of the Year for Region 13 by the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals — the professional organization for school administrators.
Administrators are nominated for the recognition by their peers in each region based on exemplary performance and leadership. The regional award winners are then considered for the statewide Principal of the Year honor, and all of the awards will be presented next June.
For Mabry, 45, the recognition is a real honor.
“This is my first principalship,” he said. “And it’s an honor to be nominated and selected by my peers.”
Mabry moved to Liberty Hill in 2008 from North Texas where he served as Assistant Principal at Keller High School. He began his career in public education years earlier as a social studies teacher and coach at New Caney High School and Humble High School. While at Humble, he worked on his master’s degree at Stephen F. Austin State University.
Mabry said he was always interested in teaching, but earned a bachelor’s degree in economics.
“In the back of my mind, I had a desire to teach, but it wasn’t encouraged,” he said.
It wasn’t until he married that he decided to pursue his interest in education. His wife, Sabrina, was working toward a teaching certificate at the time. She currently teaches social studies at Liberty Hill Junior High.
When the Mabrys started their family, he realized he needed to move from coaching into school administration. He said coaching required so much time that he didn’t have the time to be the kind of father he wanted to be.
Mabry spent seven years as an assistant principal in a school with 2,700 students before coming to Liberty Hill where about 700 students designated it as Class 3A.
“When I spoke to the (LHHS) faculty for the first time, I was nervous. The expectations were high,” he said. “But the change was refreshing. It was an opportunity to get to know them (students) by name and face, and now I’ve been here long enough to see the younger brothers and sisters of those who graduated that first year (2008).”
Mabry said that while he has grown more comfortable with the staff and students, every day still presents a new challenge.
Wtih 57 teachers, 12 auxiliary personnel (includes principals and counselors), 10 instructional aides and 15 custodial and food service employees, Mabry said he is proud to see everyone working together to encourage students to ahieve at higher levels.
Specifically, he pointed to the results of Liberty Hill students on the new STAAR End of Course exams. Local high school students scored above the state average on most of the tests, which were given for the first time this spring.
“When they (the state) first started talking about it (a new achievement test to replace TAKS), we (LHHS staff) started looking at our benchmark exams,” he said. Teachers worked together to develop more demanding benchmark tests that would be challenging for students.
Now that teachers have a better understanding of the STAAR exams, Mabry said he expects Liberty Hill’s performance to improve even more.
While he enjoys the role of instructional leader, Mabry said the interaction with students is what makes his job rewarding.
Every day, he spends part of every lunch period in the cafeteria talking with students.
“Occasionally, a few will get brave enough to come over and eat lunch with me,” he said.
Mabry said when administrators and teachers build relationships with students, the entire community wins.
“Building positive relationships with young people is what matters,” he said.
While administrative work keeps him behind a desk a lot of the time, he makes a point to visit classrooms as often as he can.
“Things can get so stressful in here that even five to 10 minutes interacting with the students can recharge your battery,” he said. “You can have the weight of the world on your shoulders, lots of stress. Being with the kids can put it all in perspective.”
Mabry said he has goals for himself and his school that are not triggered by poor performance or problems. Instead, they are based on new ideas.
“From good to great — that’s what I say,” he said.
Mabry said he wants his state “Recognized” rating to improve to “Exemplary” and believes professional staff and students are moving together in the right direction.
“It’s within our reach, and we are right where we need to be to achieve it,” he said.
“We’ve had tremendous success. When our students do well — whether it be in UIL, athletics, band, whatever it is — I feel a great sense of satisfaction and pride,” he said.
Mabry said that while there is still significant support for public education across the state, school districts could stand additional backing from the Legislature.
“Despite the cuts (in state funding), we’re still expected to do more with less,” he said.
Mabry said LHHS has been fortunate in that only one instructional aide position, which was vacated last school year, was not filled. He said he does not anticipate losing any positions in 2012-2013 due to funding constraints.
The high school is mostly quiet during these long summer days with the exception of an occasional camp and some summer classes. Mabry is using the time to prepare for the coming academic year, which begins for students August 28.
He said the campus is a little eerie minus the throngs of loud and busy students. He admitted that one day he “secretly” celebrated summer when his daughter accompanied him to school and pleaded with him to run with her through the quiet hallways.
“She talked me into it,” he laughed.
Mabry said he isn’t sure what the students think of him after five years, but he is in “real life” how he appears to be at school.
“It’s funny, they (students) don’t think you’re human until they see you in shorts and flip flops,” he said. While Mabry didn’t admit to donning that casual of attire for summer duty, he does toss the tie and wear blue jeans.
The Mabrys have two children, Matthew and Grace. Matthew will be a freshman at LHHS in the fall and Grace will be in fifth grade.
Mabry said he had flashbacks of his coaching days when he volunteered to coach his daughter’s community league basketball team — ICE — last winter. Although he had never coached third and fourth grade girls before, he admits he still felt the competitive tug from time to time.
“I enjoy the competition just like everyone else, but I’m not the screaming type,” he said.
Mabry said as he watches the new high school grow taller and wider in anticipation of opening day in fall 2013, and realizes community expectations are high. With a $71 million price tag, he understands the community is expecting great things from those who will occupy it. Mabry said he is up for the challenge.
“I’m really excited and we are ready to meet those high expectations,” he said. “Competition is good, but we want to be on top.”