KENNESAW — To Mount Paran Christian’s headmaster, character matters more than grades, where his students go to college or how much money they end up making.
It’s a lesson David Tilley has tried to instill in others his entire career. The school’s sprawling Kennesaw campus was built 15 years ago and some of the seniors who enrolled then as 3-year-olds walked across the stage Saturday to pick up their diplomas. All 115 members of the 2018 graduating class are college-bound.
Walking through the halls of the private Christian school that serves about 1,100 students, the impact Tilley has made over the years is obvious.
Teachers’ eyes light up as he walks past their classrooms. Older students make it a point to shake his hand and the younger ones beeline toward him in the hallway for hugs. He addresses each child by name and it’s clear he has the respect and admiration of his entire faculty and student body.
But every story must come to an end, and Tilley, who helped found Mount Paran Christian School in 1976 as its first board chairman and led the private school a total of 18 years, is retiring next month.
He will be replaced by Timothy Wiens, who is taking over as the new head of school.
Speaking from his office Wednesday morning, the 68-year-old Tilley said bittersweet didn’t begin to describe his feelings on retiring after 47 years in education.
THE CALL TO TEACH
Situated along Stanley Road near Stilesboro in Kennesaw, Mount Paran is the largest independent school in Cobb County.
The school’s headmaster studied political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga as undergraduate. Tilley had ambitions of attending law school and got his degree in education so he could teach and save money, but quickly fell in love with the profession.
“I knew as soon as I walked into the classroom for the first time there was no question that this is my calling,” Tilley said. “It was a God-call for me because both my head and my heart said yes.”
Over the years, Tilley has taught students from pre-K through graduate school, and he says he’s loved every second of it.
He respects his counterparts in the world of public education, but says there’s something special about being part of a community that’s unapologetically Christ-centered.
Before starting Mount Paran, Tilley spent more than a decade working for Cobb Schools as a teacher, middle school principal and a central office administrator. He and his wife Angie have three children, all of whom went on to become teachers.
His daughter Amanda Varner is a 7th grade language arts teacher at Mount Paran, where she’s been the last the last 15 years.
She said her school is losing something special when her father retires.
“Anyone in any field wants to work for the best, and I feel I’ve had that honor,” she said, describing Tilley’s impact on the Mount Paran community as incredible. “He’s made it clear from day one when he started back in the ‘70s that the students are his No. 1 priority, that yes— it’s important to run a school and raise money, but the students have always been his top priority. They absolutely adore him.”
If Tilley isn’t familiar with a student, it bothers him. So he takes the time to meet their families, learn their stories and build relationships with all of them.
Varner said her father has instilled that same love in Mount Paran’s faculty and staff.
“He’s always viewed this as more than a job,” she said. “It’s been his ministry and his calling. He pours every ounce of energy into it and always has.”
PLANS FOR RETIREMENT
Tilley hopes to spend more time with his seven grandchildren. Four of them live nearby and three live in Cleveland, Tennessee, so Tilley said he’s looking forward to seeing them more. While stepping down as head of school, he has no plans to leave the education world behind. He will continue teaching part-time at Gordon College near Boston and working as a consultant for other private Christian schools. He’s also looking forward to seeing more of the world with his wife. The two have a trip to Scotland planned in August and will take a cruise next year, he said. While relaxing at his Marietta home, Tilley said he can be found in his library reading period biographies of U.S. presidents.
PASSING THE TORCH
Tilley said he is leaving his school in good hands when he retires at the end of June. Student retention is above 90 percent, parents are donating money and the college scholarships are rolling in.
“We say proudly that a student can get anywhere from Mount Paran,” Tilley said. “But I’m more proud of who we send, not where we send them.”
Tilley said the school he helped start is doing well, and Cobb’s largest independent school is looking to raise about $12 million for a new “Innovation Center,” an expansion of the high school that aims to emphasize science and math programs.
“In any indicator you want to measure — Are we perfect? No,” Tilley said. “But we’re very healthy in every respect … academically, financially, I’m proud to be able to hand it off to Dr. Wiens.
What he’ll miss most, he said, is the relationships he’s built with students and the Mount Paran family.
Since heading the school, Tilley has grown Mount Paran from a small private school with an enrollment of less than 300 and a faculty and staff of 21 to a large campus with about 1,100 students and more than 200 employees.
“Even though we have grown so big and started so many new programs and built such a beautiful campus, we have not compromised our Christ-centered mission,” Tilley said. “We know who we are and we will not waiver. That’s what I’m most proud of.”
Teachers say Tilley’s departure will leave a tremendous void.
Katie Surgala described Tilley as the head of a family. Her kindergarten students flocked to the headmaster when he stopped by their classroom for a visit.
“He loves us like we’re his own,” said Surgala, who has three children enrolled at her school. “He’s involved in every single thing on this campus. He’s absolutely wonderful and our students just adore him.”
Varner said Mount Paran was “losing a piece of its heart.”
“Hopefully the rest of us can carry on what he started and what he so beautifully built,” she said.