Future HHS principal Mary Grupe reflects on time at RBHS, education journey

Photo courtesy of Mary Grupe.

Photo courtesy of Mary Grupe.

Nora Crutcher-McGowan, Editor-in-Chief

RBHS assistant principal Mary Grupe is set to be the next head principal of Hickman High School (HHS), after an announcement from Columbia Public Schools (CPS) in March and subsequent approval by the Columbia Board of Education. Grupe is a long-time member of the Columbia community, having graduated from HHS as well as spending years building strong relationships and serving students and colleagues within the district. 

Grupe entered RBHS as an assistant principal in 2019, the same year as current RBHS head principal Jacob Sirna, after holding an array of positions at numerous schools within the district, including multiple at RBHS. She described her journey to her future position as “career building of a variety of non-traditional experiences and in settings that are very, very different.”

Since her time at RBHS as an assistant principal, she said she has grown close to Sirna and the rest of the administration team.

Watching him, all the things that sitcoms in the 90s taught me about high school principals turned out not to be true, and the way that I understood a head principal to be and the way that I had made up my mind wasn’t the way that he did it.

— Mary Grupe, RBHS assistant principal

“Mary Grupe has an incredible ability to make everyone she works with feel seen, heard and valued,” Sirna said. “She is a servant leader who builds solid professional relationships built on mutual trust. She is impressively reflective and thoughtful about all the details related to her work.”

Grupe said while attending school as a child, academics were challenging, and she was diagnosed with a reading and writing disability in second grade. School was, for her, a space for socialization. Hailing from a family of educators and initially rejecting a career path in education, she said she changed her major 12 times to avoid the field.

“[I was] so not tied into what’s next because I don’t think I [. . .] really [saw] anything for myself,” Grupe said. “I was so worried about picking one job or career that I didn’t want to commit to any. With my parents both in education, I had this chip on my shoulder like I didn’t want to just go into the family business.”

While succeeding in college, Grupe said she was unsure of what she wanted to do. She knew she wanted to prioritize service—though she was initially unsure how—as a part of her career after spending a year participating in community service projects through AmeriCorps NCCC in her early 20s.   

“We built things, broke things, cleaned things, but that year that was supposed to be an adventure, was really a year about service,” Grupe said. “What I learned in that year is that the thing that I wanted to spend my life doing was being in service. The thing I got joy from and never disappointed is doing something that’s meaningful and impactful for somebody else.”

She came back home, readjusted her goals and began searching for ways she could satisfy her love of service. This led her to a career in education, where she has thrived in several academic environments, including working as an instructional aide and teacher for special education students and as a bargaining chair negotiating teacher contracts. On top of finishing her undergraduate degree, Grupe became certified in kindergarten through 12th grade special education.

Grupe said she found her niche within education was spending time and working with students who do not enjoy school. While she has impacted many students across the span of her career, one student, junior Juliana Blackburn, described how Grupe has helped her in high school and said she has become her role model for her ability to “love and think with her heart.” 

“I’ve never really looked at someone and thought to myself ‘I want to impact that world around me just like they do,’ until I met her [. . .] there is no one true moment I can talk about when it comes to how she and I have grown so close. She’s been there for me through some of the hardest and the happiest times in my life. The times I realized she was ‘my person’ were when I started to go to her first for absolutely anything and everything,” Blackburn said. “She has supported my success and has helped me through the times I’ve struggled with open arms and a kind heart always. It’s one of the things I love about her so much.”

One of Grupe’s own inspirations is Sirna. She said she did not consider being a head principal until she witnessed him doing his job. 

“My plan was to be here until [Sirna] retired and to try to convince him to do a job for three more years so I could retire with him,” Grupe said. “Watching him, all the things that sitcoms in the 90s taught me about high school principals turned out not to be true, and the way that I understood a head principal to be and the way that I had made up my mind wasn’t the way that he did it.”

Though Grupe will have to leave the RBHS community and Sirna’s leadership, they will be able to have an educational partnership as principals. 

“I am looking forward to working with her as a principal colleague,” Sirna said. “I think there are great things happening at all the high schools in this district and [I] am eager to learn from her as she steps into this new role. She has consistently impressed this community with her understanding of behavior related to performance, her intense interest in involving teachers in the decision making process and her ability to build trust with all stakeholders.”

Grupe described the interviewing process for HHS head principal as a blur. She initially encouraged a CPS colleague to run for the position, but ended up applying herself after receiving support from others to do the same.

“I went out to my car—[I] was in between basketball supervision and I sit out there for peace. I opened my phone and I had messages from [HHS] teachers and [RBHS] teachers asking me if I was going to apply for the job, and I had this moment in my car like I hadn’t even let that idea enter my mind,” Grupe said. “I was touched, obviously. And then I was really taken aback, like ‘Why hadn’t I seen it for myself? Why did these other people see it for me?’ And I spent like a week just on my own thinking about it, not really talking to my husband, not my family, nobody. All I could come up with is that I had been telling myself stories about what that job was, what my abilities are, that might not be true.”

Grupe said she read the job description and saw it read like her “resume, not in a boastful way,” but that what HHS wanted lined up with what she had been involved in throughout her career and what she was passionate about. She said the feedback and words she received in her letters of reference for the job meant a lot to her.  

“The things they said in [the letters of reference]—people always say it was nice to get nominated or whatever, and it is,” Grupe said. “If I hadn’t got the job, just the adjustment that happened to me here and hearing from these people I respect so much and what they thought about me would have made it all worth it.” 

Grupe said she wants to prioritize learning from and listening to members of the HHS community during her first year as head principal in efforts to build trust and communication, while overall working to push district equity and diversity practices forward. More personally, Grupe strives to see changes in the way CPS high schools interact with each other. She wears a colorful “H” enamel pin attached to her shirt, which she explained she uses as a symbol to represent her love and appreciation of both HHS and RBHS.

“Part of my preparation for applying for this job was reflecting on where I see our community needs progress, and a major area I see [progress is needed] is in the way that adults position school cultures against each other in our town,” Grupe said. “School rivalries are an archetypal norm or idea that you can find across American culture, but just like any kind of archetypal idea, its boundaries can be blurry so on one side of it, you have really positive things like school spirit, [but] the other side you have this glee or enjoyment that comes from other people’s missteps or losses.” 

Grupe pointed to a section of the bookshelf in her office filled with multiple RBHS “Flashback” yearbooks, which she said she will put in her office at HHS, further demonstrating her dedication to unite the two schools. As she has spent years in both places—as a student at HHS and educator at RBHS—she emphasized the hard yet fulfilling choice it is to make this change in her career. 

“I loved being here. My husband’s here. My friends are here. [Sirna] is wonderful. My admin team is wonderful,” Grupe said. “I am leaving a place I love for an opportunity that’s excellent.”

How has Assistant Principal Mary Grupe impacted your time at RBHS?