Eastern Wake News

Zebulon and Wendell Middle School principals set to retire

Wendell Middle School principal Mary Castleberry has led the school since its beginning in 2007.
Wendell Middle School principal Mary Castleberry has led the school since its beginning in 2007. kbettis@newsobserver.com

The end of June will carry with it the end of an era. Two long-time middle school principals, who have shaped the culture of their schools, are set to retire this year.

Dalphine Perry, 61, has led Zebulon Middle School for the past 10 years. Her friend, Mary Castleberry, 59, launched Wendell Middle School in 2007.

“There is nothing like working in the east Wake area,” Perry said. “Everyone is on the same boat, trying to get to the same sea of success.”

Although the two have faced their share of challenges throughout their lengthy careers, both glow with pride over their students, faculty and staff.

Creating community

Fellow teachers have fondly nicknamed Castleberry “the short boss” because of her petite nature and extroverted personality.

She’s a Wake County Schools product through-and-through: after spending 12 years as a student, she started her 34-year career as a special education teacher who filled in for teachers on maternity leave at various elementary schools until being named assistant principal of Powell Elementary, where she helped them win the blue ribbon school award.

In 1993, she moved into the role of principal at Carver Elementary and successfully sought the blue ribbon school award there as well. She also helped with the transition of expanding Carver from a K-1 school to PreK-5.

“It was exciting to keep the kids for longer,” she said. Little did she know how long – she led that class of children three more years when she was hired as the principal for the new Wendell Middle School and many families continued on to that campus.

“Some kids I had for nine years. I got very close to those families. I felt their pain with them, I celebrated with them,” she said with a pause to collect herself.

The school started as a tight-knit community of 226 6th-graders in seven modular units. Basketball practice commenced on the gravel court. The school’s band sound-proofed their small room and concerts were hosted outdoors.

It’s her love for the children and community that kept her through the snowstorm of 2005, where she stayed overnight with some students whose parents couldn’t reach them, or through an earthquake that shook the building during an open house event.

“The biggest challenge was to get the school (new building) ready,” Castleberry said, reflecting on her career. But a new building, two additional grades and numerous sports teams later, the school has grown to nearly 1,100 students.

Striving for excellence

“I’m a life-long learner,” Perry said.

What proves that trait more than anything else are the plaques sprinkled around her wall. Nearly every school where she worked in her 40-year career recognized her with an award.

“I’ve always been a strong advocate for public schools. Public schools allowed me to make this progress,” she said, referring to her 10th-grade geometry teacher, Ms. Gupton, who inspired her to pursue a college education.

Her first eight years in education were spent teaching in Wilson County, where she was named “Outstanding Educator of the Year” in 1984 and a local finalist in 1985.

Then, she was named assistant principal at the Winstead School for two years and became principal at Vincon Bynum Elementary, where she was named Principal of the Year. The superintendent then transferred her to the principal position at Toisnot Middle in Wilson, where she spent 11 years.

In 2005, she switched counties to Wake’s Zebulon Middle, and was a Principal of the Year finalist in 2009. She loved the resources that were available to her as part of Wake County, soaking up conferences and speakers brought to the educators.

“Sometimes really recruiting teachers was the most challenging part,” Perry reflected. “But I never just settled...I interviewed and interviewed and interviewed.”

Her proudest moment?

“Spearheading – because principals never do it alone – changing the culture of the school to one that says every child that walks in these doors deserves the very best,” she said.

Although the women plan to spend some time resting and with family – Perry is excited to travel to Hawaii and retrace her honeymoon trip to Niagara Falls – neither of the women plan to stay out of education for long.

Words of advice for the new principals:

Dalphine Perry: “The faculty here are already on the path ... to believing in themselves and the kids. See what they’re doing first.”

Mary Castleberry: “You are the luckiest person in Wake County. The staff are hard workers. You will work hard ... you better work hard!”