Mike Gemma has always wanted to "end my career professionally in international education."
He's about to do so.
Gemma, principal at Canyon Del Oro High School for nine years, is fulfilling the goal in far-off Dubai, where he'll be the headmaster of a new school in Dubai Sports City.
"I have always loved history, and always been enthralled by the Middle East," said Gemma, a Middle Eastern studies major at the University of California / Santa Barbara. As a senior, he went to American University in Beirut, Lebanon, "one of the most beautiful cities in the Arab world." In Beirut, "I was exposed to phenomenal opportunities," indeed life-changing. Since then, he's made preparations and contacts for a possible return to the region.
"The timing was right, the opportunity was there, everything fell into place," he said.
Besides, Gemma said, "nine years at a public school is more than enough. A school needs to have a change in leadership."
Gemma feels blessed to be leaving CDO on a "high note.
"CDO is a fabulous school, with great people, great kids, great families," he said. "This has been a great run, a great run."
Gemma began his education career as a principal at St. Mary's High School in Phoenix, where he was "exposed to many more opportunities much faster than you would be in a public school setting. It opened up lots and lots of opportunities."
He was an assistant principal at Chandler High School, moved to McClintock in Tempe, then was an assistant superintendent for a year before the CDO opening came up.
The Gemmas came to greater Tucson in part because son Nic was ill, with a very rare form of cancer. "We needed to be here at the University Medical Center," Mike said.
Despite the care, and the energy of family and friends, Nic passed away in January 2001. He was 8. "He would be going into his senior year of high school," Gemma said.
The ordeal, and the support, "melded us" to CDO and the community, Gemma said. "The community literally just adopted us. People were so kind. They let us regroup. They were just fabulous."
Now, though, the time is right to move on. Daughter Stephanie is "out looking for a job" after completing the dental hygiene program at Pima Community College. Mike and his wife Karen, an itinerant adaptive physical education teacher in district schools, can take a leap.
Bradenton Prep Academy Dubai is a brand new, K-12 school with space for 900 students that's due to open at the end of September. It is within Dubai Sports City, "a master-planned community with the theme of developing world-class athletes," Gemma said.
Those athletes, and the children of instructors and workers, need a school.
It is "a work in progress," said Gemma, who is the headmaster – in effect, the superintendent. The job is "very much hands-on," he said. He's recruiting staff now. The school hopes to open with some number of students and faculty; Dubai has not been immune from global economic recession.
Dubai is one of the United Arab Emirates, east of Saudi Arabia on the Arabian Peninsula along the Persian Gulf. Gemma said the location should allow great opportunities for travel, particularly from what will be the largest airport in the world. "It just opens up that whole part of the world," he said.
Everything's big in Dubai – a modern monorail system is being constructed, as is the world's tallest building. Its wealth is not so much from oil; "they've tried to be an international banking, marketing and destination place for people all over the world."
Dubai is "an anomaly," Gemma said. "I call it an adult Disneyland. They're trying to find an identity. But it's real people, from all over." Eighty percent of the people in Dubai are expatriates, from all over. English is the language of choice, along with Arabic, and Gemma plans to "reacquaint myself" with that language.
For its money, Arizona getting a 'huge bargain' from public schools, he says
Mike Gemma believes the people of Arizona "should take great pride in the job our teachers do for the investment we make."
The retiring Canyon del Oro High School principal said the parent of a toddler would spend more on day care this year than Arizona will spend to educate a high school student. "Think about it," he said.
"We have some huge successes, and opportunities for the students" with "relatively low" taxes for education. "I would argue we get a huge bargain," he said.
"There are so many comprehensive high schools, like CDO, that offer a huge variety, and much stronger" extracurricular and enrichment experiences than a student can find at many private schools. Its breadth of opportunities includes auto mechanics, culinary studies, childcare and more. And the number of students taking advanced placement tests and courses has risen dramatically.
"In our case, you're actually getting more than you pay for," Gemma said. "When you talk about world-class schools, this school can hold its own in many ways."
People complain that schools "just aren't as good as they used to be." Gemma takes exception. Students can go much further in math and science than they once could. A high percentage of students earn college credits while they're in high school.
"It's just amazing what the kids are exposed to," he said. "There are more students at the top than we've ever had before … and, I would have to say, more students at the bottom." CDO has "the kids that put forth the effort, and the kids who don't. That's the challenge, how do you motivate kids, who come from sometimes-difficult homes, where they may not value education. That's a challenge, that's a big challenge.
"The kids who accept the challenge of what's available to them are doing better than kids ever did before," Gemma said. "At the same time, there are other kids who get by. … It's frustrating, that group of students who aren't taking advantage."
Gemma has tried to "encourage teachers to have a passion," he said. "I feed that passion, and let them run with it."
He names off program after program, and the teachers who make those programs superb. "Programs are successful in a significant way because of the person driving them," Gemma said. "In every one of those cases, you can typically trace it back to a teacher.
"My most important job is to hire quality people," Gemma said. "When that door closes, it's just the teacher and the kids. That's where it happens. We have to be trusting in and confident those teachers are going to do their best."
Gemma came to CDO when Dr. Vicki Balentine assumed the reins as superintendent of Amphitheater public schools. "There's been a lot of teamwork involved there," Gemma said. "The successes at CDO are tied to the successes of the district as a whole. She has always been very, very supportive of that. I wasn't fighting anything."
That said, CDO will have eight fewer teachers next year.
"It comes down to what you value," Gemma said. "Do we value education, or not? It's a very, very important part of what a society and government provides."
Marsha Volpe is coming from Cholla High School in the Tucson Unified School District to serve as CDO's interim principal next year.
CDO "will most definitely continue to improve and grow," Gemma said. "Kids are accepting the challenges."
Don't lose sight of kids, Gemma urges
Mike Gemma's parting words to Canyon Del Oro High School faculty members may have parallel application for the public.
"Don't lose sight of the kids," Gemma said.
Arizonans must be willing to make changes in public education, he believes, especially when resources are not expanding. Financially, "I'm not sure 'back to normal' is ever going to come again," Gemma said. "That's a challenge, especially in secondary education."
He sees this as a chance to redesign high school education. "It's not very different than it was 30 years ago," said Gemma. "Maybe it's time to change the way things are done.
"K-12 is described as a behemoth. There is a tendency for parents to be apprehensive about change. They don't necessarily want innovation that's untested. But in this reality, this is the time … to try things, different approaches, and see if we can't come out ahead," Gemma said. "They'll need the support of the community."
As an example, he wonders if it's time to "break loose of the archaic rules we have about time and placement." Students may benefit from more one-on-one time with teachers, and less lecture time, he believes. Another example: in Europe, students take three sciences a year, rather than 'this is my year for chemistry,'" a method that may allow interests and abilities to develop, rather than be dulled. And a third – "let the kids who are ready for college move on." If they can demonstrate competency, "why do we make kids stay in high school four years?"
Above all, Gemma said, "what works in education is a true partnership with school and home. Parents absolutely have to get involved and be supportive. As long as we have participation, we'll be fine."