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Retiring Marco Island middle school principal Abounader: 'Treat kids as human beings'

In the mid-1970s, one of George Abounader's high school students called him in the middle of the night and said she needed help. He asked where she was, hopped into a car and drove to her in Syracuse, New York.

"I find her, half of her body is on the curb, the other half is on the street, collapsed and the (pay) phone is dangling," Abounader said. 

Abounader said he picked her up and took her to the emergency room. He later found out she was suffering from a drug overdose.

"They are my students; they knew they could call us," he said.

Abounader retired in June after almost 50 years working in education, 21 of those as principal and CEO of the Marco Island Charter Middle School.

George Abounader poses for a portrait,  Friday, July 17, 2020, at his home in Marco Island.

Abounader, 70, was born in Utica, New York, in 1950, growing up with his sister, parents and grandmother, a Lebanon native. He remembers going to church on Sundays, eating delicious Lebanese food and playing basketball with his cousins.

"I had a blessed childhood," he said.

A yogurt lesson

Abounader went to Notre Dame High School in Utica, an all-boys school at the time where students had to wear suit and tie, he said.

A teacher once read to the class an article about how to make yogurt, which was popular in the Middle East and parts of Asia but not commonly found in U.S. grocery stores in the 1960s, Abounader said.

"He ends this article and says, 'Ewww,' and he looks at me in front of the class: 'Abounader, your people eat that?'" he said.

"Yeah, we like it," Abounader said he responded.

Despite this experience, Abounader said Notre Dame provided great discipline and learning skills that were useful when he went to college and later when he started teaching.

"They taught me to study. That's the part I carried over," he said. "The other stuff, it didn't bother me at all."

In 1972, Abounader graduated from Syracuse University with a bachelor's degree in political science and started working on a political campaign for a local candidate who lost.

It was then that one of Abounader's friends, a teacher with the Syracuse Diocese, asked him to substitute for him in May while he was out on vacation. The school's principal offered Abounader a teaching job months later.

"Apparently I did a great job," he said.

From campaign to classroom

Abounader loved teaching so much that he went to Boston College in 1972 to get a graduate degree in education. He taught from August to May and went to school during the summers, graduating in 1976.

George and Cindy Abounader pose for a portrait, Friday, July 17, 2020, at their home in Marco Island.

In 1983, Abounader was hired to teach at St. John Neumann Catholic High School in Naples. There he taught for four years and worked as assistant principal for another 12 until 1999.

The school's 1999 yearbook, which was dedicated to Abounader, describes him as a cheerful administrator who would substitute teach, cheer for the sports teams and run the school's book store.

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No matter how much he had to do, he was never too busy to help, according to the yearbook. The book includes a photo of a sign that was on Abounader's office door that said: "Students are not interruptions to my work. They are my work!"

James Cooper, a former student at St. John Neumann, said Abounader was always talking to students at lunch hour and supporting them at athletic tournaments. 

"He cared about every single kid in that school, and every single kid knew that," Cooper said.

Cooper is now a high school vice principal in Connecticut. 

"I didn't realize at the time when I was in high school that he would end up being a role model for what I was going to be doing," he said.

Cooper said he learned from Abounader the value of showing compassion to students, even in tough situations. 

George Abounader looks through his class of 1999 St. John Neumann Catholic High School yearbook, Friday, July 17, 2020, at his home in Marco Island. Abounader retired in June after spending 47 years as an educator with 21 years spent as the principal of Marco Island Charter Middle School.

Love, success on Marco

In 1999, Marco Island Charter Middle School hired Abounader one year after its inauguration. In the beginning, the school had 200 students, 14 portable classrooms and no permanent building.

One of Abounader's top priorities was to create a personnel handbook with policies and procedures for employees, job descriptions and other structures necessary to continue the school's mission, he said.

It wasn't long before Abounader and the school's board embarked on a journey to build a permanent facility. It took several years just going to Collier County school board meetings and building relationships in the district, he said.

Eight years and 30 portable classrooms later, a $17.3 million facility was built in 2007 in partnership with the School District of Collier County, according to the school's website. The new school has a two-story academic building and a separate arts building, allowing it to accommodate more than 400 students.

Before the new school was built, YMCA on Marco Island gave free transportation to students to take their P.E. classes in its outside pavilion, according to Abounader.

"We are a successful school because of our faculty and because of the tremendous support we get from the community," he said.

It was at YMCA and while doing volunteer work for other organizations that he met Lucinda “Cindy” Love-Abounader, his wife and chief executive officer of the Y.

George Abounader shows a picture of himself in a Class of 1999 St. John Neumann Catholic High School yearbook, Friday, July 17, 2020, at his home in Marco Island.

Love-Abounader said her husband is one of the kindest people she knows, treating students as if they were his own children and calling them "my kids."

"I always get a chuckle out of that because I'm like, 'Are these all your kids?'" she said.

Love-Abounader said her husband is the support of their "blended family" because both had kids prior to the beginning of their relationship. They married nine years ago.

"He just brings the families together and he cares about everybody," she said.

'He was special'

Abounader said treating students with dignity and respect is key to a successful school.

"I want people to treat kids as human beings," he said. "I want them to see that there are developmental stages that kids go through and we need to be sensitive to those stages."

Abounader said parents, teachers and school administrators should not treat children as "little adults" because the brain doesn't fully develops until much later in life.

"If you try to treat that middle school child as if they had all the analytical skills adults have, you are doing some violence to them," he said. "I want children to be understood depending on the developmental stage they are in."

Lauren Jeper, a former student at the charter school, said Abounader made her feel welcomed when she moved from Dallas in 2011.

"When I first met him, I was nervous about going to a new middle school but he was so passionate about his school, so proud of it," she said.

Jeper said Abounader would help with the traffic line during student drop-off and pick-up and would greet all students in the morning. 

"It kind of clicked in my mind that he was special," she said.

Abounader said it is also important to give teachers latitude to make decisions in their classrooms. It allows them to be more creative or reach out to a student "in a way traditional teaching skills haven't really prepared teachers for," he said.

George Abounader poses for a portrait at his home, Friday, July 17, 2020, at his home in Marco Island. Abounader retired in June after serving 21 years as principal at Marco Island Charter Middle School.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close earlier this year, it was the teachers who made it a successful academic year, Abounader said.

The school was not prepared to launch an entire online learning platform and yet it was successful because teachers had to start thinking outside the box and nobody told them how to do it or what to do, he said.

The success of schools depends on their faculty, according to Abounader.

"I could have the best-laid plans of mice and men and if they are just sitting on my shelf and nobody is implementing them, they are worthless," he said.

Head of the class

Marco Island Charter Middle has been an A-rated school every year since 2002, according to data from the Florida Department of Education. The department gives schools a letter grade after evaluating components like standardized test results and graduation rates.

The department designated the school as a "school of excellence," meaning that its percentage of possible points earned in its school grade calculation is in the top 20% among all middle schools in the state.

The school is also the fifth best charter school in Florida, according to Niche.com.

The 2020 Best Charter Middle Schools ranking is based on an analysis of statistics and reviews from students and parents using data from the U.S. Department of Education, according to Niche's website. Ranking factors include state test scores, student-teacher ratio, student diversity, teacher quality and charter school ratings.

Abounader's contributions to society go far and beyond the school setting. In 2013, he became the first educator named Citizen of the Year by the Naples Daily News for his contributions to the school and his volunteer work.

Abounader served on the City of Marco Island's first Parks and Recreation Committee and became president of the local Rotary Club. He is currently a board director of the club and board of trustees member and treasurer of the Community Foundation of Collier County.

Even though he will remain active in these and other community-based organizations,  Abounader said he will undoubtedly miss the students 

"They give me so much joy when I'm with them," he said. "That's what I'm going to miss the most and they probably don't know they have that effect on me." 

The school's board named Michele Wheeler as principal after Abounader announced his retirement earlier this year. Wheeler, the school's assistant principal since last year, began on her new role July 1.

Contact Omar at omar.rodriguezortiz@naplesnews.com, and follow him on Twitter as @Omar_fromPR. Support his work by subscribing to Naples Daily News.