Moody Independent School District Superintendent Gary Martel looked over the counter as a woman in a hairnet asked whether he wanted his gravy on top of his cafeteria food. He said of course, then took his white foam tray down the line, stopping to get fruit and veggies before he, like the students who came before him, punched in his account number to get lunch for the day.

“Honestly, the steak fingers and chicken nuggets are my favorite, and I really do like it,” Martel said as he plopped down at one of the cafeteria tables at Moody High School to eat with the students.

Martel said he knows school cafeteria food typically gets a bad rap, and schools will never win the ongoing battle with Whataburger and Burger King and everything in between. But at least he knows students will be given one good breakfast and one good lunch, he said, and he tries to make it a habit to join them.

“We call it witnessing the struggle. We kind of do things together,” Martel said. “As a superintendent, I’ve heard all the gripes about cafeteria food and I’ve heard all the complaints. Then I ask people, ‘Have you ever ate it?’ They say, ‘No, that it’s just what somebody said.’ Our business isn’t about what somebody says. You need to go and be a part of it.”

Martel started with the district as interim superintendent June 15 and became the official head of Moody Independent School District in July.

He and his wife, who works as a fourth-grade math teacher at Moody Elementary School, thought his last job as the superintendent of Diboll Independent School District would be where he eventually retired after serving 17 years in various positions. That plan changed when he applied for the open Moody position, which came with the opportunity to be closer to a new grandson.

Every Moody ISD campus has met state academic standards since the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness tests were implemented, except for the 2014-15 school year.

Since his start three months ago, Martel has worked to make sure the district is defined by the people who make it great, not its test scores, he said.

Members of his staff say they have already seen a new boost in morale because of his guidance and leadership.

“We’re more of a team and we feel more like we’re all in this together,” said Brenda Perryman, a reading intervention specialist who has been with the district for 24 years and seen her fair share of superintendents come and go.

“It kind of makes you work a little harder because it makes you feel like what you’re doing is appreciated. He has a very positive attitude, and it’s infectious. He’s walking down the hall, just talking to you, and you don’t feel like you have to be standoffish.”

Martel has goals and specific focus areas outlined for the district and its interaction with the community, and earning parents’ and residents’ trust will be a big part of that, he said.

By being visible and involved, he knows he can show parents he is listening, Martel said. While taxpayers and parents may not always agree with the district’s decisions, making himself approachable allows for a more honest conversation, he said.

He eats breakfast and drinks coffee at Lucy’s Cafe each morning, often interacting with residents. By lunchtime, Martel is walking the halls of each campus, giving high-fives, handshakes and hugs to students to encourage them and let them know he is paying attention to their work. He’s getting to know most of them by name, he said.

He tries to eat lunch with the students as often as he can throughout the week, going through the cafeteria line with them and eating the same food, he said. His success is measured by the support he can give students, not by a test score, Martel said.

‘Just a one-day test’

“STAAR is just a one-day test during the year, and one group of students can hit a campus and really make a campus look like it’s not doing very good,” Martel said. “But most campuses around the state have a lot better story than just a test score. That test score is just a snapshot and just something to say, ‘Here’s some data, and here’s what we need to improve on.’

“Students don’t get to choose their parents. Sometimes, they don’t get to choose what situations they deal with or whether their parents care about education, and that’s where we fill in that gap. That’s the public school’s job.”

Martel has excelled at developing good relationships with students and administrators alike, Moody High Principal Andrew Miller said.

“He does a great job with other administrators, as far as explaining his rationale for decisions and having a very collaborative approach to leadership. He wants our input on what’s going on, and that’s not entirely new. He’s just a very people- friendly person and does a good job of making people feel valued,” Miller said.

“His interactions with students is impressive to see, and he’s done a great job of building a rapport and meaningful relationships with kids.

“That kind of leadership is important, and a good example is we were up here the day before school started, trying to make sure everything was ready for the kids. I walked out, and he was out there with his truck, filling potholes in the parking lot. It’s not that other superintendents don’t know that’s important or don’t care, but the fact that he went out and got gravel and was shoveling it himself, means a lot. That kind of approach has set the tone for everything he does,” Miller said.

As his first year continues, Martel said he wants people outside the district to know he isn’t the only one showing this kind of support and that the town isn’t just a small place for people to drive through.

With an active school board, a school counselor who serves in the cafeteria whenever she’s needed and a Future Farmers of America director who also serves as the city’s fire chief and emcee at pep rallies, as well as many others, the staff is doing as much as they can to support their students, he said.

“Ultimately, I’m going to be the guy where the buck stops, but I think a hands-on approach, showing everybody you’re a normal guy and not aloof, that you care about the community, is important,” Martel said.

“I’m a little different. I grew up on a farm. I grew up hunting and fishing, doing the things that these people appreciate because you’re normal. If you don’t come in and put yourself in their positions, sometimes it’s very hard to communicate.”

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