Gary Neal seems to be a man of many mantras … depending on the subject, theme, time period or perspective.
When it comes to students, one of his key words is this: completion.
“The high school diploma? That’s so 10 years ago,” he says, from his office overlooking North Sequim Avenue. “We’re looking at college completion.”
Rather than enjoying the relative calm before the storm, Neal — an educator who grew up in Western Washington but spent 34 years studying and working in Spokane — is cramming for a exam of his own. He’s the Sequim School District’s newest administrator and first assistant superintendent.
At the time of Neal’s hire in June, Sequim schools superintendent Kelly Shea said his second-in-command would be focusing on assisting with teacher-principal evaluations and more. That more becomes evident when Neal breaks out a flow chart of his responsibilities on his office’s dry-erase board. Below his title are several of the district’s departments: Support Services, Secondary and Elementary professional development, technical, principals, and a triad of state entities — the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, the State Board of Education and the Legislature in Olympia.
Though he’s not in the classroom nor the principal’s office anymore, Neal notes, it all comes back to the students.
“Are students completing what they start?” he asks, rhetorically. “Getting there isn’t good enough.”
For a man who spent two-thirds of his life on the other side of Washington, Neal says he’s still a West-sider. “I still consider myself a Seattleite, even though I lived in Spokane for 34 years,” he says.
Neal grew up just north of Seattle and graduated from Ingram High School.
“I was one of those guys who loved everything about school,” Neal says. It came to him much later, but Neal recalls critiquing teachers, analyzing what he’d do and not do were he in the teacher’s chair.
When he first got to college — all the way across the state to Washington State University’s main campus in Pullman — Neal studied to be a forest ranger. But by his sophomore year he’d decided he wanted to teach and coach. (The teaching bug caught his sister, Pat, as well; she’s a third-grade teacher at Sequim’s Greywolf Elementary School.)
“I had a great time in Pullman,” Neal says. “I kind of enjoyed the seasons.”
A degree in education led to a 14-year stint at Spokane’s Rogers High School, where he also coached football and basketball and served on several committees.
Teaching, he says, was much less intentional back then, without the analytics of what teachers deal with now. Instead, Neal says, instruction was based on relationships. As he earned their trust, Neal says, he was better able to enrich their learning.
One of his goals as a teacher and administrator, Neal says, was to make sure students stayed after school for something — a sport, a club, anything — to give them a chance to connect with educators who would become their mentors.
Neal then worked as an administrative assistant at a middle school and eventually worked for five years as an assistant principal, then went back to the classroom for a stint teaching integrated science.
About 10 years ago, a job opened up for an assistant principal position with West Valley High School in Spokane, a school with a slightly smaller enrollment than Sequim High. Halfway through his first year, West Valley’s interim superintendent was named superintendent and West Valley High’s principal was named assistant superintendent, and as the dominos fell, Neal found himself a high school principal five months after taking the subordinate position.
He led West Valley High’s Eagles for nine years.
“I loved everything about it; clubs, fine arts the sports,” Neal says. “I really enjoyed that. That was what I wanted to do.”
Fit, and fit for the job
An educator with a career spent in the Spokane area moves to the Olympic Peninsula to help lead Sequim schools. Does this sound familiar?
A year after hiring Shea as their superintendent, Sequim’s schools found another administrator looking to make a move across the state.
Neal says Spokane has a big, little town feel, so active with events like the Lilac Festival and Bloomsday road race, Hoopfest, biking areas and hiking trails, fishing and kayaking opportunities and more.
It seemed a perfect fit for Neal, who outside the office was active in riding dirt bikes and other outdoor sports. A 2003 back surgery has Neal transitioning more to motorcycles, but he’s active in the triathlon arena and says he’s planning a shot at the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon.So why the move?
“We’re getting tired of the winters in Spokane,” Neal says.
When he and his wife Heather realized they soon would be empty-nesters — their oldest daughter, Shelby, has graduated from the University of Washington while their youngest daughter, Brittany, is attending Washington State — he started looking at job opportunities.
Sequim was a familiar name, Neal says, after his father Clarence “Boots” Neal retired here (he’s died in 2005) and his sister moved to the area.Not long after former executive director of Teaching and Learning Vince Riccobene took an open position as Sequim Middle School principal in March, his position was transformed into an assistant superintendent role. Enter, Gary Neal.
“I feel like it’s my first year as principal again,” he says.
Though Neal is a career educator, the challenge is always new, he realizes. Educators in Washington, for example, have seen six major testing changes between 2004-2014, and based on recent history, more changes are likely to come. For Neal, the focus in education needs to be just that: focused.
“No flavor of the month,” Neal says, noting he tries to emphasize to co-workers to focus on no more than two goals per year. “Let’s slow the merry-go-round down.”
Once his staff get that concept and accept it, Neal says, “Everyone breathes easier.”