By Tina Jenkins Bell
BAPA School Liaison
When Mercedes Z. Sheppard, Morgan Park Academy’s Head of School, was a teenager, she loved math and analytics. With an undergraduate degree in accounting and an MBA in finance, Sheppard began her career in banking, where she ascended to Officer in the Treasury and Capital Markets division of ABN AMRO Bank. In 1996, she accepted a teaching position at Morgan Park Academy. Taking that position changed the trajectory of her career.
At MPA, Sheppard taught accounting. After four years, the former Head of School encouraged Sheppard to apply for an administrative role. Sheppard’s roles went from teacher to business manager, to assistant head of finance, to Assistant Head of School.
In 2014, Sheppard became MPA’s first Black Head of School and the second woman to lead the Academy, which was established in 1873 as an all-white-male, military academy. When asked if she saw herself in her current role as a young girl, she said, “Oh, God, no. When I started my career, I would have never seen myself leading a 148-year-old institution. But, right now, I can’t see myself doing anything else.”
Q: You’ve worked in corporate banking, as a teacher, in administration at MPA, and now head of school. Which role was the most challenging and why?
A: Being head of school has its challenges because ultimately, I feel responsible for everything that happens at the school. In the last year with COVID, the decision to return to school was by far the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make professionally. Still, I can’t discount the challenges of being a teacher.
Q: What were some of your priorities when you started?
A: First and foremost, internally, I wanted to instill the confidence in the quality of professionalism among our teachers because they are truly amazing. Our teachers understand the success of our students comes in the relationship part, not just what happens in the classroom but what happens outside of the classroom. So, I wanted our teachers to know how important they were to the success of the Academy and their value in our community. Part of that was identifying internal leadership within the school and among our teachers. We identified curriculum leaders who had been long-standing teachers who had knowledge of what made our curriculum unique. We pulled principals and assistant principals from our teaching pool and gave our teachers more time to spend on professional development. I spent a lot of time opening doors for teachers interested in and qualified for leadership roles. I positioned our teachers as resources for the community by encouraging them to write blogs on why we do the things we do and lead group discussions with parents.
The International program was another priority. We had just started our International Student Program, so I traveled quite a bit at the beginning of my tenure, creating relationships and partnerships. We now have sister schools in China and Greece.
Of course, maintaining enrollment and parent confidence as well as the excellence of the Academy were all important priorities for me.
Q: Have you achieved any of these priorities?
A: Yes. According to Niche.com, the Academy is ranked among the top 10 percent as Best K-12 Schools; that speaks to our academic excellence. We also finished our five-year academic plan last school year. Now, we’ve been through a pandemic, and we are definitely looking at our plan and evaluating how the pandemic has changed it. The positives that have come out of the pandemic is we have taken leaps and bounds in our use of technology.
Q: Who are some of your role models and why?
A: Beverly Biggs, who was a trustee at the Academy when I started and a former Lower School Head of School at the Chicago Lab Schools before that, taught me the importance of speaking up and speaking out and being collaborative in an environment where you may be the only female at the table.
Barbara Tubutis was another amazing person who understood people. She used to always tell me you should be able to make decisions with people in a setting that shows you’re the highest ranking in the room while also respecting everyone else was important, too.
Outside of the school, my mom, Rose Marie Thompson’s salient advice has helped me make some of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make in my life. .. My mother was a mom, confidante, wise sage and literally the queen of common sense. She’d always say, “Don’t overthink it.” My mom was by far my cheerleader and influencer.
Q: For the young person stepping foot into his, her, or their first job and vying to be a leader, what advice would you like to share?
A: First, make no assumptions about the people in the room. Every person you encounter or meet has to stand on their own, so you don’t want to discount anyone for superficial reasons. That person could become your ally or mentor or change the trajectory of your professional experience. Second, don’t wait until your first job to build leadership skills. You can begin learning how to read and interact with people by joining organizations, like athletics, student council, or chorus in high school or college. All of these experiences prepare you to lead, and you should enjoy the journey. Finally, especially for female professionals, understand your voice is everything.
Sheppard is a Beverly/Morgan Park resident. She refers to her daughters, Anna, 14, and Rachel, 18, as MPA lifers, both have attended the Academy since Pre-K3. She and her husband Sylvester recently celebrated their 27th anniversary.