Emily Lembeck didn’t set out to become a teacher, let alone the superintendent of Marietta City Schools, a position she held more than 11 years, but a chance encounter with a little girl in a Coney Island classroom changed the course of her life.

Now in her first summer of retirement, Lembeck can look back at an educational career that reflected the values of hard work and tzedakah instilled in her by her two working parents.

“We are in the opportunity business,” Lembeck said. “We provide openings for all students despite challenges they may face. There can be no losers in public education as everyone needs to move forward.”

She decided to pursue an education degree during her sophomore year at Brooklyn College, following the example of numerous classmates. “I went into it thinking this is something I might like to do.”

Only when she entered a classroom did she understand the implications of her decision.

Lembeck was assigned to teach reading to a little girl in an at-risk school in Coney Island. The girl had matted hair and smelled unbathed, and her reading abilities were behind her grade level. Yet she proved to be an inspiration.

“That moment was a life-changing experience for me,” Lembeck said, holding back tears. “It didn’t take long for me to realize this is what I was meant to do.”

Lembeck said she also had struggled with reading at a young age, and she was motivated to become a kindergarten teacher. “I wanted to develop a learning environment in which children would be happy to learn and attend school.”

In a tough job market in 1974, however, she had to start as a paraprofessional for a remedial reading program in an at-risk high school. At the principal’s suggestion, she returned to school to get an English degree on the way to a full-time position. Lembeck passed her exams shortly before moving to Florida.

She eventually got a job as a kindergarten teacher, but “time and time again I came back to literacy and my commitment to teach minorities in at-risk schools how to read.”

For example, she taught first-graders in an alternative reading class, and 17 of 18 finished the year at or above grade level in reading. “Each child was taught individually,” Lembeck said, “and the whole focus of the room was to make sure they were literate and they felt good about themselves.”

Before moving to Georgia in 1987, Lembeck became certified in teaching literacy.

She taught in another Atlanta-area district before being hired as a first-grade teacher in Marietta, which has its own school system. Within a few years she became an instructional lead teacher, then the principal of Dunleith Elementary.

“I think my ability to relate to teachers and my understanding how much their work is a part of who they are enabled me to work well with them,” Lembeck said.

She earned a doctorate in educational leadership. “I’ve always considered myself a public servant, and, in the end, it was not about the title, but because I wanted to know I could do it.”

After Dunleith, Lembeck became the principal of Marietta Middle School, which was struggling to meet the needs of a pivotal age group. She improved the academics and school culture enough to earn a promotion to associate superintendent, putting her in position to be appointed to the district’s top job when Harold Barnett retired as superintendent in 2005.

Even while moving up the administrative ladder, Lembeck retained her particular interest in helping at-risk children learn to read. She helped establish Marietta Reads, which has developed foster children’s enthusiasm for reading for nearly 15 years.

“The school district possessed a lot of traditions but was also ready to move forward, and I was able to balance both the traditions and a 21st century learning environment needed for students to succeed,” Lembeck said about her time with the Marietta City Schools.

Before retiring in December, Lembeck reached a professional peak in 2012 when she was named Georgia’s Superintendent of the Year. Another highlight was when she discovered that a former student from Westside Elementary had grown up to become a teacher in the same grade and classroom where Lembeck had taught.

“I loved learning, and when you help students discover the same philosophy, they can accomplish anything,” she said. “That’s what builds you as a person: It’s the experiences you have.”

Lembeck looks forward to retirement and more time with her husband, Harry, and five grandchildren. But she also has signed on as the executive director for Leadership Engaged, a future academy formed in partnership with the Cobb County Chamber of Commerce and Cobb Community Foundation to integrate retirees’ skills and experience to support nonprofits.

Judaism has always been a part of who she is and what she does.

“I believe the desire to learn, the ability to question and possessing a great deal of faith is a part of who I am and how I identify with my religion. I don’t think you can separate the two,” Lembeck said. “Having compassion, high expectations and a strong work ethic is critical, as is the desire to make life better for those in need. It is something I grew up with, and while some give through advocacy or a check, I believe I have contributed in the most powerful way, and that’s by providing one a good education.”