Joanie Martin remembers the moment she fell in love with Crossroads School. It was 1987, she was visiting the site where she was about to become the elementary school director and a group of sixth-grade students was working on a project in one of the classrooms.

It was recess time.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “They wanted me to see their work, and they were excited about what they were doing. I thought, ‘Somebody is doing something very right.’”

That initial interaction turned into a nearly 30-year stint at Crossroads for Martin, who is planning to retire from her post before the start of August. Colleagues, alumni and members of the school community celebrated her service to the Santa Monica private school with a live-music dance party on campus June 11.

“Once you’ve been doing something that long — and I’ve loved every single minute — it’s time for fresh eyes,” said Martin, who will be replaced by Debbie Wei. “I no longer have the same vision I once had. The school is in really good shape, and it’s time to pass the reins over to somebody else.”

Crossroads Head of School Bob Riddle said Martin’s impact will live on not only through the school’s academic programs but also through its families and its elementary campus, which she helped design.

“She has an incredibly legacy here,” he said. “She’s hired practically every teacher who works at the school, and … she’s been a fantastic cheerleader for the school. Her love of children, her love of play — it permeated the whole community in great ways. We’re going to miss her.”

In several ways, Martin’s presence will still be felt on campus when she retires at the end of July. She will likely continue working for the school in a limited capacity, whether in the admissions office or in other departments.

In addition, Martin’s name is now attached to a community room that serves as a gathering hub for the elementary campus. And Crossroads is starting a financial aid endowment fund in her name to help lower-income families attend the private school.

But Martin, a former Santa Monica resident who now lives in Mar Vista, still has plenty to figure out.

“I have no idea who Joanie Martin is without Crossroads,” she said.

Originally from Plainfield, New Jersey, Martin attended Smith College in Massachusetts and majored in biology with the intention of going to medical school. But an ensuing stint in a cancer research lab gave her pause, and she took an opportunity to teach at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island, which was then an all-boys Quaker day school.

“Why they hired me I have no idea,” she said, recalling the flight of rubber bands across the classroom. “I didn’t have a single credential to my name. It was a 24-7 job because I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Martin taught during the day and worked towards her master’s in education from Rhode Island College at night. She spent about a decade at Moses Brown before becoming the lower-school director at Far Hills Country Day School in New Jersey.

Her arrival at Crossroads in 1987 can be traced to her attendance several years earlier at a workshop in New Hampshire, where she met then-Crossroads administrator Roger Weaver. The two reconnected when the local elementary school was looking for a director, but Martin was reluctant to move to Southern California.

“He said, ‘Stop being so narrow-minded,’” Martin said, and she caved.

On her first day at Crossroads, which was then located at Saint Augustine by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Santa Monica, a child asked her if she was an airline stewardess, so she ditched her East Coast attire for California casual.

The rest is history.

She was deeply involved in Crossroads’ move in 1997 to its current elementary location at 1715 Olympic Blvd.

She was instrumental in helping Elizabeth and Paul Michael Glaser enroll their daughter, who contracted HIV through breastfeeding after her mother was given a contaminated blood transfusion at childbirth. At the time, Martin said, it was a controversial and highly taboo subject.

“It was a very scary time for parents,” she said. “We all knew something was wrong because she’d be screaming in the bathroom in pain. … It was the right thing to stand by this family and anybody who was suffering at that time. We all stood together. I was so proud of the school.”

Martin also spearheaded a program to build students’ understanding of different family dynamics, including same-sex parents. She recalled a 1998 parent meeting during which many parents expressed outrage at the idea.

“We’re talking about people in this school, about our own families,” she said. “We knew we were stepping on unsure turf, but we had to talk about it. It’s not a choice. It’s a necessity.”

Thanks in part to Martin, the exploration of issues surrounding racial and social justice has also become a key component of the Crossroads experience.

“We’ve done incredible work,” she said.

Photo credit: Linda Abbott Photography