Montgomery County Leadership: Mindy Wawrzyniak, Head of School, Center School
Mindy Wawrzyniak, Head of School at Center School, grew up in a family that prized education. Her father was a math professor, and her mother was a secretary at a public school. Wawrzyniak herself was drawn to teaching and working with kids from a young age.
After marrying her husband who was serving in the Marine Corps, she traveled around the U.S. and the world, gaining personal and professional experiences that shaped her. Today, she draws on those experiences as the leader of Center School, based in Abington.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Silver Spring, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C. Both of my parents were born and raised in Pittsburgh, so I spent a lot of my childhood traveling there, as my parents were the only ones from their families to leave that area. I have very fond memories of visiting with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins — and traveling through “the tubes” and riding on the incline.
What memories do you have of growing up in Silver Spring?
The best memory of growing up was the freedom I enjoyed. I would be out all day, in the winter in the snow. Or in the summer, I’d be in the woods and in the creek with my best friend and my brother. I didn’t see my mom until the end of the day! I look back on this time very fondly — but at the same time with some sadness as kids today, unfortunately, aren’t able to do that given, that our society is, for all intents and purposes, scarier out there.
I also remember the love that my parents gave to me. Both of my parents worked very hard to raise my two older brothers and me in a loving and secure home. My father showed me that I didn’t have to be afraid of mathematics, which at the time I was growing up, many girls were. My dad ensured that I had a strong foundation in math, and that helped build confidence.
My mother taught me the value of treating people fairly and helping those less fortunate. She also had a very silly side, which definitely rubbed off on me.
As I grew older, I learned to appreciate the sacrifices my parents made for my brothers and me. I grew very close with my parents and am still very close with my father. My mother passed away in 2006, and I miss her dearly.
What about sports? Did you find time for sports when you were growing up?
No, I didn’t play organized sports. But I was at the gym quite a bit. Both my parents were into health and fitness, so I naturally gravitated toward that. My father, at the age of 85, still goes to the gym.
Throughout my childhood, I learned to play the piano. I picked it up again in adulthood and played with my daughter. Together, we would practice and perform in recitals.
What kind of music were you listening to in your teenage years and in college?
The ’80s! There’s no other music in my mind. However, I do like a variety of music.
I like ’70s rock — one of my brothers is seven years older than I am, so I grew up listening to it with him. I also love disco. My parents took disco dancing lessons and would practice in our family room.
One of my fondest memories growing up is on Sundays after Mass, my parents would move the furniture to the side of the family room and turn on disco music and dance.
Did you have a favorite group?
In my middle-school years, I loved Duran Duran. I was fortunate enough to see them and many other bands that I liked in concert. I was into progressive music at one point — I loved The Smiths, the Cure, and Echo and the Bunnymen. However, if I were to pick one band that stops me dead in my tracks, it’s The Bee Gees.
What about part-time jobs when you were growing up?
I volunteered as a candy striper, but my very first paid job was at a Sizzler Steakhouse in Wheaton, Md. I was responsible for a variety of things, such as tending the cash register and resupplying food. It was a minimum-wage job, and when you arrived, you did what the manager told you. I learned that everyone has to start somewhere, and when you’re told to clean the men’s bathroom, you quickly learn that nothing is above you.
This has helped me with my role as the Head of School in Center School. While my title may assume certain responsibilities and afford certain luxuries, I always remember that there is no task that is too small for me to complete.
Where did you end up going to college?
I graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education. I had always been interested in working with children. In high school, I volunteer tutored students after school. I even tutored one of my classmates in chemistry.
The University of Maryland had a great College of Education, and as soon as I got there I knew it was where I needed to be. Some people don’t like large college campuses, but I loved it. I didn’t mind the long walks from class to class, nor did I mind the large classes. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Elementary Education, and years later, I secured a Masters of Education with a Reading Specialist certification from Arcadia University.
Where does that draw toward education come from? Is it in your bones or from your parents?
Probably both. I saw my father as a professor and my mom working in schools. And I knew I had a unique ability when I worked with kids. I enjoyed teaching elementary math but fell in love with teaching reading later in my career.
What was it about reading that touched your soul?
It was being able to have a conversation about a story with students who are many years younger than you, and they are engaged and excited about the discussion.
Mindy, what skill set do you bring to the teaching profession that is unique and distinctive?
Having a unique perspective on understanding the needs of my students, and how they learn, is a skill that I have developed over my years of teaching.
I am extremely organized and consistent, two traits that are integral to successful teaching, especially for children who have learning disabilities. Without that, instruction suffers, and the learning, as a result, suffers. I can take a look at my students and say, “Here’s what we need to do, and this is how we’re going to do it.”
When I came to Center School, I was encouraged to use my professional judgment, creativity, knowledge of my students, and knowledge of standards of what has to be taught. This is why I love Center School; our teachers have the autonomy to give their students what they need using a wide variety of mediums available to them.
Over the last 25 years of your career, Mindy, who are the people who saw promise in you and helped you get to where you are today?
I don’t think I ever got a “big break” in the traditional sense; the hand of God was guiding me to where I needed to be, which ultimately led me to Center School.
My path was unique and diverse. After graduating from UMD, I met my husband, and we traveled around the country and world as he served in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Aside from everything else I experienced in my life, the time I spent with my husband and our children while he served had the biggest impact. I was able to gain many different professional experiences, from teaching to entrepreneurship, and a variety of life experiences that many other people don’t experience. I lived in Maryland, Virginia, California, and Japan. These experiences impact who I am today and how I approach my professional life.
Each time we moved, I had my foot in education in some manner, and when we finally settled down in Pennsylvania after my husband’s retirement from the Marine Corps, I was able to really hone in on what I wanted to do. After securing my master’s and reading specialist certification, I found Center School through a friend. I taught, and eventually moved into administration.
How did you meet your husband?
We met at a Halloween party in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. He was dressed as a cow, and I was Pebbles. We started talking, and the rest is history.
What brought you to the Center School, Mindy?
Finding Center School was like finding a needle in a haystack for me. I really feel that I was meant to be here. I was leaving a long-term substitute position and looking for another opportunity. My friend who used to work at Center School said I should submit my résumé as she felt like it was a good fit for me.
I was initially hired as a reading specialist and taught in our middle school. When I got here, I quickly noticed how different it was from other educational environments I had been in. The biggest difference is the flexibility that we have in allowing teachers to exercise their professional knowledge in teaching their students.
When the Director of Education position became available, I was excited about that opportunity because I felt that my skills would translate well into administration. This position set me up to become the Head of School. I cannot think of another school I’d rather be in.
How would you describe the Center School in a couple of sentences?
Center School serves students in grades one through eight with learning disabilities: dyslexia, dysgraphia, and ADHD. Our purpose is to provide students with the strategies and tools for them to understand who they are as learners, so that when they leave our environment, they can feel confident, self-advocate, and be successful citizens and learners in their next learning environment.
Tell me about your focus this year. What are your priorities as head of school?
About three years ago, Center School embarked on a strategic plan.
One of those goals is for me to get out into the community and showcase Center School. This involves showcasing the successes of Center School and building community partnerships which can help us with our internal fundraising and external philanthropic efforts so that more children can have access to a Center School education. We want to be able to help as many families and students as possible, especially now as we are seeing the fallout from virtual learning.
What are some of the external partnerships you’re working on?
Our Director of Admissions and I are visiting various private and public schools to talk about how we teach and support students with learning disabilities. Unfortunately, some schools do not have the resources to support their students effectively, especially those students with a learning deficit.
We are also looking to develop relationships with colleges to host student teachers. We want to begin conversations about what graduating teachers can expect walking in our doors. Many people have a misunderstanding of what learning disabilities are, and we would like to ensure that we spread accurate information and dispel assumptions about learning disabilities.
What do you do with all that free time that you have?
Well, I added a German Shepherd puppy to the mix, so that takes up my little free time.
I do make time, however, for my physical and mental health and well-being. I go to a CrossFit gym three times a week. I’ve been doing that for about 10 years. It relieves stress, and makes me feel strong and confident.
My husband and I try to find time to watch our shows. We’re a little late to the party, but we just finished Breaking Bad, and now we’re moving on to Better Call Saul. We both enjoy The Crown as well. And of course, we love Abbott Elementary.
Do you read much?
I read every night, usually historical fiction. I also read some educational journals, typically on ADHD or dyslexia.
What’s something big that you’ve changed your mind about over the last 10 years?
In my role as Head of School, I have met many families. I’ve had to become more reflective about how my personal experiences have shaped me and how different they are from the families we serve. I realize that our families’ struggles may not fit into the box that my struggles fit into.
At the end of the day, I want our students to learn and feel successful. Building relationships with Center School families is a priority for me. I want to emphasize to them I may not understand what it’s like to walk in their shoes, but we both are committed to the same goal and that is the success of their child.
It’s a crazy world out there, Mindy. What keeps you hopeful and optimistic?
The fact that young people are still willing to risk their lives for our country makes me very hopeful and optimistic. Both of my children joined the military, following in my husband’s footsteps. Our daughter is a captain and a pilot in the Air Force, and our son is a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. We have family friends whose children have also joined the military.
Finally, Mindy, what’s the best advice you ever received?
I’ve received a lot of advice, much of it well intentioned. But the best piece of advice I have ever received was from my husband. Traveling and moving so much, I had my share of job interviews. Before I would go, he would simply say, “Just be yourself.”
This helped me to relax and put things into perspective, and provided me with a feeling of confidence that I could project in the interview. I apply this advice in all situations, from meeting prospective donors to making large presentations.
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