New Castle News

February 2, 2013

In The Schools: Gabriel ends lifelong relationship with New Castle

Debbie Wachter
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — George Gabriel has spent all but 10 years of his life as a New Castle schools student, educator or administrator.

For the first six years, he wasn’t in school. Then there were the four years he went to college.

Gabriel, who has been the district’s superintendent for nearly a decade, retired Thursday in a tumultuous end to his 42-year education career.

The 63-year-old resigned amid conflict with school board members who were divided over the proposed elementary school consolidation project.

As the board seeks a successor through the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, Stanley Magusiak, an assistant to the superintendent, has been named acting superintendent.



A TIME TO LEARN

Gabriel, a bachelor who grew up on the city’s South Side, has spent his adulthood living in his parents’ home on Lynn Street on the East Side.

He fondly remembers his first day at Lincoln-Garfield Elementary, and cherishes a snapshot of his 6-year-old self, taken outside the school that day.

Gabriel landed a job teaching fourth-graders at Lincoln-Garfield right out of college, then taught fifth- and sixth-graders there, eventually becoming the school’s principal.

His crowning glory in education came when he was named superintendent over the district he has called his lifelong home.

A couple of memorable teachers forged Gabriel’s desire to become one himself. One was Mike Zidow, a Spanish teacher who walked from the South Side to the high school every day.

“I never had him for class,” Gabriel recalled, “but he was an inspiration to me.”

Another was Vince Scialabba, an English teacher who made reading difficult classic novels interesting.

“Vince was an outstanding teacher. I learned so much from him, and teachers like him led me to the type of leadership style that I developed through the years,” Gabriel said.

“That may come as a surprise to him, because teachers never know at what point they’re going to impact somebody’s life.”



A TIME TO TEACH

Gabriel, who received his degree from Slippery Rock University, did his student teaching at Mahoning Elementary under now-retired teacher and principal Richard Retort.

He had just been hired as a teacher when the call came for him to get a physical for the draft during the Vietnam War.

“They checked my feet and I was told I had flat feet and was rejected,” he said. Thus, his career at Lincoln-Garfield began in September 1971.

After seven years, Orlando Lucidore retired as Lincoln-Garfield and West Side schools principal, and Gabriel took his first step up. He assumed that position in September 1978 at 28.

Meanwhile, he went to graduate school at Westminster College, where he earned his secondary administration certificate, then his superintendent’s certification. Westminster was offering a superintendent’s program in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh.

“I felt it would be my opportunity to lead the district that educated me.”

From there, Gabriel became director of special services over New Castle’s special education and gifted programs, then administrative assistant to now-retired superintendent Joseph Martin, overseeing the federal and Title I programs.

When Martin went on leave during the 2002-03 school year, Gabriel was named substitute superintendent.

“Joe was my mentor,” he said. “He helped me quite a bit before he left.”



 A TIME TO LEAD

When Martin retired, those in the district who were certified were invited to apply.

“They wanted to hire from within,” Gabriel said.

He started his stint as superintendent in September 2003.

His contract would have expired June 30, but in the heat of debate over the pending school project in October, he submitted his retirement letter when he saw he had lost the support of the majority of the board to proceed. The board later voted to go ahead with the project, after learning of the financial loss the district could suffer in repaying the money.

Gabriel feels lucky to have been involved with construction of the junior-senior high school.

“It was gratifying for me to see our students have such a beautiful facility,” he said. “It wasn’t long after that we started looking at the older elementary buildings and their poor conditions.”

When the Pennsylvania Department of Education notified the district about interest-free money for new construction under the federal stimulus program, it gave new life to the idea of a primary-grade school consolidation and renovation. The district ultimately was approved for $17.5 million — “a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Gabriel said.

Gabriel sees the establishment of the pre-kindergarten program in 2004-05 as an accomplishment during his career. While the program started out as full-day, the state cut the accountability block grant allocations and the district reduced the program to half-day.

About 75 percent of this year’s kindergartners attended the pre-kindergarten program last year, Gabriel pointed out.

He also is proud the district has not raised taxes in 10 years.



A TIME FOR ACCOLADES

Gabriel received a standing ovation from the district staff during an exit meeting he called a week ago.

Karen Humphrey, the current board member with the longest tenure at 17 years, was in Gabriel’s social studies classes in fifth and sixth grades at Lincoln-Garfield.

“As a teacher, everybody just loved Mr. Gabriel. He was kind, he was compassionate, and I don’t ever remember him raising his voice at us. I loved being a student in his class.”

Humphrey cast one of the votes to hire him as superintendent.

“Having had him as a teacher and knowing he had the best interest of the students at heart” was one reason she believed he was a fit for the job, she said. He also had an understanding of the operation of the district, he had fiscal background and had been a principal and understood special education.

“I feel fortunate to have known him as a teacher and as a superintendent,” Humphrey said. “I will miss him in that (latter) role, but I will always call him a friend.”

Magusiak also offered comments about his friendship and working relationship with Gabriel.

“George and I have known each other since we were kids. We both ended up getting hired as elementary teachers for New Castle.”

They have shared a common passion for technology, and spent hours together discussing how to get the district’s administration up to speed with it, Magusiak said.

“I wish George well and hope he finds peace in whatever his future holds for him.”

(Email: dwachter@ncnewsonline.com)