When George Abounader retires from the Marco Island Charter Middle School in June, he will be leaving a legacy of achievement—and a big piece of his heart.
“This is like my baby,” Abounader said of the school he pioneered. He has been with the school for 21 of its 22 years.
“When I started here, we had eight portables,” Abounader said from a conference room outside his office in the beautiful $17.5 million brick and mortar building that is part of today’s middle school complex.
Abounader has a lot of memories—and a lot to be proud of—but it always comes down to one thing for the career educator.
“It’s all about the kids. I look back and I think to myself, ‘I know that I’ve affected—in a positive way—thousands of students. And I don’t know how many employees. And that’s a feel-good feeling for me.’
“So that’s the part I cherish the most. I had good relationships with my students and staff, and it’s a lot more than relationships. My whole professional career has been that way. Over the years there have been a lot of interactions with people; I’m more of a people person, you know.”
Abounader has tried to model his dialogue on the example of Austrian Jewish and Israeli Philosopher Martin Buber, whose philosophy centers on the distinction between the I-Thou relationship and the I-It relationship.
“I’ve tried to practice in my profession the I-Thou relationships,” Abounader explained. “I don’t want to see my student as an ‘it.’ I don’t want to see my employee as an ‘it’. I want to see them as a ’thou.’ There’s something very sacred about that student. There’s something sacred about that adult, or employee. I try to live my life as if there were something sacred about those people. I didn’t want to treat them as a category or a label. I think people are the greatest species. There’s animals, inanimate objects, but I think people are the most important part of our evolution. I try to be sensitive to the human part of our evolutionary process.”
The charter middle school had humble beginnings. It was very much in its infancy when Abounader arrived.
“In 1997-98, a group of parents submitted the application,” he recalled. “In 1998-99, was the first school year. Very small enrollment, not a lot of the organizational part because it was all new. I had the privilege of putting all the systems in place; basically leading the school.
“At that time, there was some controversy regarding charter schools in general. So, we had to get better organized. We had to prove ourselves before people would have confidence in us. There were a lot of people against it. Not on the island, but in the county. Because it was new, most people didn’t understand what the laws meant.
“It started with portables, then every year I would add another row of portables. We ended up with 29 portables. We were 9 years in the portables, and during those 9 years, we started earning honors. So, I told them, ‘We’re already a school. We’re not going away. We just need a building.’
“When it came time to design this campus, I was part of the design team. I was consulted in every weekly construction meeting. That is a privilege. I was required to write a 135-page booklet describing how we function as a school so the architects could design a building that was functional.
“We got a full-scale gymnasium building—it’s like a high school gym. Originally, in the booklet, I talked about our after-school program. We had an after-school program—primarily a sports program since the school opened. The public middle schools didn’t necessarily have after school programs. So, as a public middle school, who did we play?
“We played the private schools. We had to use the YMCA facility. That’s the kind of local support we had. We had no P.E. facility. The Y would pick up our kids, take them for their P.E. class, then bring them back here. All day long, we had support from all the local clubs. It was really helpful.
“We were looking at the plans and I looked at the gymnasium. It didn’t have bleachers; it didn’t have a lobby and public restrooms. I said, ‘I have to have bleachers and a bit of a larger lobby, with public restrooms.’ They just looked at me and said, ‘George, we don’t build gymnasiums like that for middle schools. Your gym is your classroom. You don’t have a facility that will hold a crowd.’
“I said, ‘Well, why did you have me write this book then? This doesn’t work for me.’ They went back to the drawing board. It cost an additional $400,000, and they were paying for the building, by the way. This is a district facility. This is the first and only time that anybody knows of in the entire state that a local school district builds a school for the exclusive use of a public charter school. Never been done before. It was so strange that I had to meet with officials up in Tallahassee to see if it was legal. The contract was for $17.5 million. The district would pay that; we contributed $750,000 toward that.
“The gym has been a great help, not only to our school but to the entire community. We try to share that facility with people.
“That’s one way I was able to be influential. Another way—and this is kind of a small one—when they designed the lockers, they had flat tops. I wanted them to have slanted tops. I said, ‘I’ve got to have slanted tops on these lockers. If they’re flat, they’re going to become a catch-all. There’s going to be lunch bags sitting up there. It’s going to look awful.’
“It was such a privilege to have input on the building.”
The middle school is arguably the top-performing middle school in the county. For 19 years, it has been awarded an A rating—including 18 in a row. They’re also a school of excellence.
“We’ve been designated by the Florida Department of Education as a high performing charter school,” Abounader said of the school’s performance. “The high performing charter school label isn’t just a designation you can put on your letterhead; it saves us money. Because most charter schools have to pay the district 5% of their income. We get it reduced to 2%. So that’s a lot of money every year. You can lose that.”
As his days at the school are winding down, Abounader has reflected on his legacy. “I’d like to be remembered as a person who respected everyone and provided the opportunity for an education for thousands of people. I pioneered the school and left the community and the families and students with a highly acclaimed public school with a sound financial position. I just wanted to do good for the community.”
He realizes life will be different when school starts in the fall.
“It’ll be the first time since I was 6 years old that I won’t be on an academic calendar,” he mused. “I don’t know about that. I am going to miss the students. That’s what I’ll miss the most; and the ability to be formidable in someone’s life. I really think middle school is where you can be most formidable. It’s that developmental stage they’re going through. Phew, man! There’s chaos going on in their own bodies. They don’t know who they are. Some of them think they’re a different sex. Some of them think they’re LeBron James. They’re all over the place. I find that cool.
“They’re just going through a developmental stage. Better for them to go through it around people who love them, than going through it by themselves. Better for them to go through it now. You help a kid get through middle school and they’ve got a good foothold for high school and college. That part I’m going to miss. Having that kind of impact on a child, and I don’t teach them every day. There’s days I don’t even see a child, but at least I’ve set up the structure for them. The curriculum, the rules and that kind of stuff.”
However, Abounader is not going away.
“I’m married to the Y’s CEO—Cindy Love Abounader. She’s going to have me doing everything. Between the school here and the Y, we do a lot of volunteering. That’s all we do. I’m on three boards.”