To say Robbin Wall breathed new life into McGavock High School as principal would be a major understatement.
It was a sad day when Wall, 65, recently announced his retirement after more than four decades in education. During the past 11 years, Wall carefully crafted the rise of McGavock High School. His fingerprints are all over the high school in Donelson, and he breathed new life into the school that was declining and ready for a state takeover.
“Robbin Wall has been a model of great leadership with dedication and commitment to the success of all the students, staff, and families of McGavock High School,” said Metro Nashville Public Schools Director Adrienne Battle. “I’m grateful for his service to Metro Schools, and we are committed to finding a principal to fill the enormous shoes of Dr. Wall.”
The school continues to thrive after Wall took over the high school and turned it into one of the nation’s pilot “academy models” and raised the graduation rate from 60% to nearly 80%.
“It’s been 11 great years,” Wall said. “These are great families, a lot of good teachers, and thousands of wonderful students. It’s gotten to the point the school needs new ideas, ways of teaching and someone to take it to even a great level. It’s time for the next person to step in.”
Indeed, the bar is quite high. Former President Barack Obama visited the high school in January 2014 and gave a speech touting Metro Nashville Public Schools’ academies program in high schools. Wall was instrumental in implementing the national high school transformation model that provides students with one of the best college and career prep experiences in the nation. Students have a choice of dozens of different academies that offer a practical, hands-on approach to learning in fields that interest them, ranging from engineering to health care.
Metro Nashville Public Schools pegged Wall to turn McGavock around in 2009 after officials heard about his success at the Academy of Irving ISD – currently Singley Academy – in Texas where he was principal. He had the magic touch there, as well.
In a tragic turn of events, his wife of 26 years, Sandra, died of cancer in May 2008.
“I worked one more year to keep my mind occupied,” said Wall. “I then planned to retire from Texas when a group of instructors from Nashville came to visit.”
They pegged him for McGavock, and Wall took a new path in his long career in education that included teaching, coaching and administration across Texas. He headed to what was then Tennessee’s largest high school and one that was failing miserably.
“No, I wasn’t intimated by the size of the school,” Wall said. “At that time, it had 2,900 students. In Texas, many of the high school have over 5,000 students.”
He wasn’t put off about the task of raising graduation rates and turning the school into the system’s pilot academies school.
There are several highlights in Wall’s 11-year tenure at the school in the heart of Donelson with the fun nickname of “Big Mac.”
The first he mentioned was Obama’s visit.
“He recognized what we were doing and how hard we were working on the academy model,” said Wall. “He knew we were preparing kids for their future.”
Another major milestone and touchstone moment was in 2016 when the school received the Jeffrey N. Stein award in November of that year naming McGavock the best academy high school in the country.
“It was a huge accomplishment,” Wall said.
Wall said one thing he learned was to “be honest about what and who we are.”
One of the hardest things he faced throughout his years at McGavock – and no doubt during his 42-year career – was losing students to death.
“As you know, just recently we lost two of our students in a single-car accident,” he said.
The third passenger in the car continues to recover and even participated in the recent drive-thru graduation, according to Wall.
“He was wearing a halo brace protection device,” said Wall. “But he is recovering.”
Along with traffic deaths of budding students, others took their own lives.
“As a leader, I knew how hard these incidences impacted so many people,” he said. “They were our lowest points, and I just tried to let the families know how much we cared.”
Another challenge for Wall was, “seeing how hard our teachers work and maybe not getting as much recognition as needed for their abilities in the classroom.”
Wall said he’s not involved with choosing his successor.
“Of course, I would love to pick my replacement,” he said. “But people need to look at all aspects of the next principal. That’s for the school board and supervisors to decide.”
He said hopefully that person would take the school to the next level.
“I don’t want McGavock to go backward but someone to take it to even a better level,” said Wall.
He hopes the district will pick the new principal sometime in June, and the school’s master schedule is already completed.
“I’d love the teachers to be able to familiarize themselves with all the teachers and staff,” he said.
There have already been some emotional goodbye tributes, including a marathon Zoom session where current and former colleagues shared stories, reminisced and gave well wishes.
Last week, there was a surprise drive-by parade at the school. He happened to be at the school.
“The next thing I know they called me outside, and there was a long parade of friends, teachers and even former principals,” Wall said.
There were signs, honks and even a huge balloon bouquet.
“It was so cool,” he said.
Wall has children and grandchildren and hopes to spend a lot more time with them after retirement. And, he said it’s not “full-time” retirement, but rather semi-retired would be a better term.
“I’m hoping for some consulting opportunities on things I’ve already done,” he said. “Maybe the district will want me to do this. I’m not retiring, retiring but will keep working. I’m not out to pasture yet. I still feel young and can’t play golf 24-7.”