When Penelope Martin-Knox went off to college, she thought she wanted to be a pediatrician but later learned her passion was in teaching. After a 26-year career in public education, she is now Sumter School District's new …
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When Penelope Martin-Knox went off to college, she thought she wanted to be a pediatrician but later learned her passion was in teaching. After a 26-year career in public education, she is now Sumter School District's new superintendent.
Martin-Knox sat down earlier this week with The Sumter Item to discuss her career, her formative years when teachers were the biggest influences on her life and her new job she started July 1 as the district's leader.
The Baltimore native remembers her first-grade teacher's name and wanting to emulate all her teachers in elementary school. Her middle school music teacher, Alvin Wallace, meant the world to her, she said, in supporting her academics and musical endeavors.
"Going into education allowed me to give back to children what had been afforded to me through the support I received from my teachers," Martin-Knox said. "I really have been focused on the development of children and ensuring that children don't go without because my teachers made sure that I had at all times."
That support came in various forms and fashions.
In middle school, Wallace introduced her to music. After she mastered the recorder, he gave her a clarinet to take home and practice with. She hadn't known what a clarinet was, and there were no musicians in her family to show her.
She said she thought that was the worst weekend of her life because she couldn't figure out how it worked.
When she returned to school, Martin-Knox said, she asked her teacher to give her the recorder back.
"I can still hear him chuckle when he asked me, 'Show me what happened,'" Martin-Knox recalled. "I went to show him what happened, and he told me at that time that I needed to take the protective cap off the clarinet in order to get it to produce a sound.
"So, later on, I realized that's what good teaching is," she said. "He made me go back and show him what I had done; so, he taught me the lesson of not quitting. He was one of those teachers who truly went above and beyond."
A high school music teacher and her two college band directors also stood out, she said, as she achieved a bachelor's in music education from Morgan State University in Baltimore in 1991.
After a year teaching in Baltimore City Public Schools, she secured a position in Baltimore County Public Schools, one of the largest systems in the country with a current enrollment of 114,000 students, headquartered in Towson, Maryland.
Martin-Knox started at Deer Park Middle Magnet School as an instrumental music teacher in 1993 and advanced there to principal from 2005-10.
Her last two positions in the district were community superintendent and chief of school climate and safety.
As a community superintendent, she was responsible for about 35 schools in the district across the K-12 levels. Baltimore County Public Schools is divided into four zones and has a total of 175 schools, she said.
In both roles, she focused on the transition for students across the three levels, ensuring environments were productive and inviting - especially around social and emotional aspects to student learning.
"Going to the model of the community superintendent," Martin-Knox said, "allowed me to really focus on that trajectory from kindergarten to 12th grade to look at the data and see student progress and to really help leaders in the schoolhouse shape the experiences for our children so they achieve academic success."
Now in Sumter
Martin-Knox said she is excited to be in Sumter.
She said she has been impressed with school leadership and community support and that she has already spent time in the schools listening in order to lead.
"It's about listening and learning," Martin-Knox said. "Once you have listened and learned, then you take the process of leading into consideration. But you can't lead what you don't understand. Right now is the opportunity to listen and take in as much as I can so that I can be a support to the leadership that ultimately impacts our children."
Her goals for this year, she said, are improving academic outcomes for students in line with state standards and strengthening environments around children, from classroom instruction to after-school opportunities.
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