Monday nights in Sugar City are reserved for family home evenings. No school events are ever scheduled.
In Garden Valley, the opening day of hunting season is taboo.
“Oh really?” said Marc Gee when he heard of the mountain town’s tradition. “I’ve got to put that on my calendar.”
Gee is the new superintendent for the Garden Valley School District and he admits he’s in for a culture shock.
He’s moving from a Mormon, farming community to a rural, mountain town. His Sugar-Salem School District caters to more than 1,500 students compared to Garden Valley’s 220.
And, he’ll be a district leader for the first time, after years as a teacher, principal and federal programs director.
He says he’s excited about the changes he’ll face both professionally and personally.
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“I can’t wait!” he said with the enthusiasm of a 6-year-old on Christmas Eve.
Gee is — or was — a lifelong member of the Sugar-Salem School District. He went to school there. He went to church there. He spent his teaching career there. His parents live there.
Gee had never even been to Garden Valley when he applied for the job of superintendent. But he read an article about superintendent Randy Schrader, who resigned to move to Hawaii, and Gee became intrigued.
“It sounded like such an awesome place so I applied,” Gee said. “The first time I’d ever been to Garden Valley was for my interview.”
Awesome maybe, but one thing is for sure, Garden Valley is one of the best districts in the state according to academic results:
- Garden Valley sent 68 percent of its students to college in 2013, well above the Idaho average of 52 percent.
- About 93 percent of Garden Valley students are proficient in reading and more than 84 percent are proficient in math. Both percentages are above the Idaho average.
- SAT scores in Garden Valley also are above the Idaho average in reading, writing and math.
- Garden Valley scored the highest marks in Idaho’s five-star rating system the past two years.
“One of the teachers was explaining to me the education plan of every student and you couldn’t do it on a larger scale,” Gee said. “I love it.”
Gee is walking into a district that has been trying innovative approaches to education. Schrader moved to student-driven education models where kids picked their learning paths and a mastery system, where students advance when they master a skill instead of when they have a birthday.
“They have been able to tailor an educational experience for every student,” Gee said.
Schrader also moved from a big district of 6,000 kids to the tiny district and found he was able to make big changes quickly.
“What I noticed most of all when going to Garden Valley from Caldwell was how supportive the community was for the school to be successful and most everyone was willing to step up to help,” said Schrader, who now is a teacher licensing specialist for the State of Hawaii. “In the small school, everyone has multiple jobs and you never heard ‘That’s not my job’.”
Schrader became a part of the Garden Valley community. He barbecued hot dogs during football games and cooked steak dinners for prom night.
“I can’t be Randy Schrader but I intend to also be a part of the community,” said Gee, whose boys already joined the youth football program. “I’m going to do things in the way that fits me.”
Gee is trying to sell his home in Sugar City. In the meantime, he’s renting in Eagle so his wife can attend Boise State University and he can commute the 60 miles to Garden Valley with his three boys in tow — fifth-grade twins and an 8-year-old. Their 5-year-old boy will stay in Eagle with mom, Heather.
“My kids are so excited to go to Garden Valley,” Gee said. “I took them to school last week and they said it was awesome. In a small community and small school, the kids get more attention.”
Gee, a former middle school principal, was most recently the federal programs director in Sugar-Salem so he has a strong background in finances — but not district-wide leadership. He’s maturing quickly and has already met with other small school superintendents, though he’s only been on the job four weeks. They brainstormed ideas for sharing services.
“I’ve already learned several things,” said Gee, who is not afraid to call on veteran superintendents for help, including his old boss Alan Dunn. “I know how a school runs and how to interact with kids and teachers. I just have to re-train my brain for this community because school should be a reflection of the community.”
Garden Valley has had graduations on a Sunday. Something that would never happen in Sugar-Salem. And last week, he arrived at school to find it full of firefighters, camping out on the grounds while working the state’s largest forest fire.
“That was unexpected but certainly welcome,” Gee said. “I hope the school can be a big focal point of the community and a place where people can find services or help.”
Gee asks long-time school employees to explain the traditions and accepted norms of the community, including their regular activities.
And in attempts to join in a typical Garden Valley activity, the Gees tried something new this weekend.
They went camping.