Published October 19, 2010
Volume 18, Number 10

New Principal Mark Neal Oversees Carden West Expansion   

By Nicole Zaro Stahl

Hundreds, if not thousands, of children are fortunate that jobs for school band directors are relatively scarce. Had they been abundant, Mark Neal would not have taken his college classmate’s suggestion and walked across the quad to transfer from music to elementary education.

“My high school band director was my idol,” recalls Neal, who just took over as principal of Carden West School in Hacienda. “He had so much energy, and when he was in front of the class you could tell that was exactly where he wanted to be. Students would do anything for him because of the time and passion he put into teaching. I saw that and thought, ‘that’s who I want to be.’”

Reality set in at the end of his sophomore year in college, however, when he saw that positions for music teachers and band directors were hardly abundant. Switching majors would give him a much better chance of landing a job on graduation, he realized. It was not a radical shift, since he would still be in the classroom. Not only would he have more employment options, but, as an elementary-school teacher, he would have the opportunity to emulate the enthusiasm of his role model, instilling the same hunger for learning that had enriched his own life.

Even with this foresight, Neal began his teaching career somewhat accidentally. 

He grew up in Saint Petersburg, Florida, raised by his mother, who spent most of her time working as a nurse at the local VA hospital, and by his grandmother, who was the anchor at home. Education was an important family value, even though—or especially because—his grandmother had never finished high school. “My grandmother was probably the biggest influence on my life. She was very religious, and it’s because of her that I ended up having the education bug,” he relates.  Neal’s grandmother sent him to Catholic school for kindergarten, and got him started reading the Bible at a young age. “I don’t have the recollection of reading kids’ books at home, but I was a good reader from early on,” he comments.

Neal took up the saxophone in school in the third grade, continuing all the way through high school with classes every day, and twice a day his senior year as a member of both the jazz and marching bands.  He is grateful that his home state had the resources to provide so much music education, which his teaching friends tell him remains in place today. It is also one of the appeals at Carden West, where, with its emphasis on educating the whole child, students have music classes two to three times a week, depending on their grade level.

Despite his affinity for and success in school, Neal did not feel ready for college right after graduation. “I had been so intently focused on education for 12 years, and I wanted a break,” he says. A break it may have been, but it certainly was not time off. He enlisted in the army and was sent to a satellite school of the Defense Language Institute in the San Francisco Presidio, where he learned German in preparation for a post in military intelligence. “I was very lucky to be stationed in San Francisco at age 19. There was so much to do.” He shipped off to Germany after language training, remaining there for two and a half years until an accident while playing basketball earned him a medical retirement at the age of 22.

He went back home, this time eager to hit the books again. He enrolled in Florida International University in Miami, thinking in the back of his mind that he might use his German in a career in international business. “I took two business classes and realized it was not my thing. From then on I focused on education, first music and then on elementary ed.”

After four years of college and a stint substitute teaching, Neal figured it was time for another change of scene before permanently settling into his profession. Part of his wanderlust came from being in the army. “I liked moving around and exploring new places,” he observes. His plan was to spend a year substitute-teaching in San Francisco, where he still had friends, and then go back to Florida. One week into subbing, he was offered a full-time post teaching fourth grade at the school in the Fillmore district that was soon to be renamed to honor civil rights leader Rosa Parks. The following year he took a last-minute position at Sanchez elementary school in the Mission district, postponing his return home.

He found that teaching in the inner-city had its rewards and challenges. “Kids are kids, no matter where you go,” he notes. But the surroundings wield an enormous influence, and after two years he felt the rub. “It is really tough to deal with that environment after a while. The teachers work so hard, but many parents don’t, and that’s discouraging.” 

The next year found him in a fresh, more upbeat setting--a fourth-grade classroom in Union City, where he taught for five years and took on many administrative responsibilities, including a county-wide technology integration initiative. At that point he again contemplated going back to Florida, but he thought it best to be equipped with a Masters degree. He was accepted into the Principal’s Leadership Institute at the University of California at Berkeley and in 2003 became an associate principal at Creekside Middle School in Castro Valley, also serving as summer school principal for the Castro Valley Unified School District until his selection as principal at Carden West.  

Neal’s varied background has given him special insight into what it takes to make students successful academically. It may be surprising to hear that teachers are only a small part of the equation.  He is convinced that the real key is parental involvement, in both school and daily life.

“I’ve learned over the past 14 years that parents make the biggest difference between high-performing and low-performing schools. When I was hired at Sanchez, it was the lowest performing school in San Francisco, but it’s a misperception that the teachers there were not as good as in other places. So much is attributable to the environment the students grow up in.”

Neal’s appointment as Carden West principal is especially well timed, coinciding with a significant expansion. The private, nonprofit school is adding all three middle school grades over the next two years—sixth and seventh started this fall—and plans are underway for an update to the exterior facility.

He takes the helm delighted by the level of parental support, as exemplified by the 95 percent parent attendance at the recent back-to-school night, and enthusiastic about the extensive resources that allow Carden West to offer music, art, physical education, and foreign language classes, as well as after-school enrichment activities, along with a proven core curriculum. 

He also appreciates the staff’s commitment to high standards and the “exceptionally strong” foundation Carden’s preschool provides to its youngest students. Guided by the belief that children who experience success in school will develop confidence in their problem-solving ability as adults, the school and its new principal make an excellent match.


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