|Barby Magness, the founding principal of St. Matthew School, is surrounded by students in Marguerite Wilson's kindergarten class. Mrs. Magness is retiring at the end of this school year. Photo by Andy Telli
Barby Magness wanted to be principal of St. Matthew School in Franklin before it was built.
When Magness, a St. Matthew parishioner, received telephone calls asking her to donate to a capital campaign for the school, she offered more than just money.
“I told the caller that I’d like to be principal if that was possible,” she said. “Once announcements were made in church that they were looking for candidates for the position, I excitedly applied. My application was accepted, I went in for an interview, and I was hired.”
Magness started a year before the school opened, which gave her time to hire faculty and develop a curriculum and other programs for the school. After 15 years, Magness will retire at the end of this school year. She is the only principal St. Matthew School has ever had.
Before Magness was principal at St. Matthew, she spent 18 years working as an elementary and middle school teacher and administrator in the Metro-Nashville school system. She taught every grade from kindergarten through fifth grade. She helped implement the PALS program in the Metro school system, which pairs new teachers with a veteran teacher to act as a mentor. She also was named Teacher of the Year. Her last public school role before coming to St. Matthew was as assistant principal at Cumberland Elementary School.
But nothing could replace the sense of community she found while working at St. Matthew.
“St. Matthew is different from any other school I’ve worked at because of the deep family connections we have here,” she explained.
“When I was working in Metro schools, there were children who touched my life. But they would only stay in the same place for an average of four years. They’d be in one place for elementary school, somewhere else for middle school, and so on and so forth.
“Here at St. Matthew, most of our students stay for nine years, so I’ve had the privilege of watching them grow up,” she said. “We tell our students we will embrace them, inspire them, and be with them always. And I do believe we are with them always.”
St. Matthew opened in August 2001 and immediately was successful. “When we first opened, we were just a K-4 school, one class per grade, built with room to grow. We had enough space for a maximum of 125 students, and had 123 our first year.”
Under her leadership, enrollment grew rapidly. “After our first two years, we had too many students.”
So the school started adding a second classroom per grade, about three or four years sooner than anticipated.
As the first students advanced through the years, the school would add another grade, until in 2010, “our first class of kindergarteners graduated from eighth grade,” she said.
Today, St. Matthew has about 425 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, making it the second largest elementary school in the Diocese of Nashville.
Magness considers herself blessed to have worked alongside the teachers at St. Matthew for the past 15 years of her professional life.
“Helping put together the great faculty we have here at St. Matthew is one of the best things I’ve been a part of,” she said. “They’re in the classroom every day teaching our children, they’re dedicated to their work, and they’re talented at what they do. I couldn’t ask for more.”
Magness is most proud of the school’s alumni and their accomplishments.
“When I first started as the principal here at St. Matthew, we came up with a school motto,” she said. “It was ‘Seeking Knowledge, Modeling Christ, and Serving Others.’ As our graduates have left, it’s been very heartening to see how they’ve taken that motto to heart throughout their lives. They’ve been taking on leadership roles in high school. One is currently in med school. One is serving in the Peace Corps. Another has gone on to become a teacher herself. And the list goes on. I’m so proud of all of them.”
Magness will be succeeded as principal by Tim Forbes, a St. Matthew parishioner and dean of student life and campus ministry at Father Ryan High School.
Although Magness will miss the school and plans on coming back often to volunteer, she knows she’s leaving St. Matthew in good hands.
“It’s almost like being a grandparent watching your own children become parents for the first time. You see them take on these new responsibilities, and there’s no reason to be nervous because they’re doing great,” Magness said. “I’m really glad and thankful that Tim Forbes is taking my place. I can’t think of a better person for the job.”