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East County Tuesday, Jun. 7, 2022 3 weeks ago

McNeal Elementary principal retires after 34 years in education

River Club's Cheryl McGrew has enjoyed seeing her visions for education become reality for students in the School District of Manatee County.
by: Liz Ramos Staff Writer

Cheryl McGrew still remembers her first day at Gilbert W. McNeal Elementary School in 2003.

At the time, she was a teacher.

The new school had just opened its doors. McGrew remembered meeting students and their families throughout the summer at Greenbrook Park, which is just a short walk from the elementary school, to pick the school colors of green and purple and the school’s mascot, the Wildcat. 

“It was a very exciting part of my life,” McGrew said. “I feel fulfilled by being able to open a school. It was like a shiny new penny. It was brand new, big, we had plenty of room. It was just gorgeous. The families were so excited. I have all the yearbooks from the beginning of McNeal to today.”

McGrew’s education career went full circle as she retired as principal of McNeal Elementary School May 27 after 34 years in education. 

Throughout her 31 years with the School District of Manatee County, McGrew had an integral role in creating the STEM curriculum that is now used in every elementary school throughout the School District of Manatee County. McNeal and Freedom elementary schools were the first in the county to have the STEM labs that are now common in each elementary school.

McGrew said she traveled the country to places where there were large STEM-integrated schools so she could learn more about STEM education.

With the support of the district and students’ families, McGrew’s vision for STEM education in Manatee County became a reality. 

“They got behind it, and they could see my vision for what our students needed,” she said. “I was kind of one of those people that I just love math and science, learning about technology and learning how to code even back then when I didn’t have the background. But the kids sure did know how to do it, and they embraced it. It’s fun to see the vision fulfilled.”

McGrew’s favorite memory was the first year McNeal had its STEM lab. She said the students learned about catapults and trebuchets, how they worked, what the difference was between them and more. 

Cheryl McGrew remembers when students spent a field day launching tomatoes from a trebuchet. File photo.

One of the school's business partners donated dozens of tomatoes, so during a field day at the school, McGrew spent the time with students flinging tomatoes across the field using a 6-foot trebuchet, a type of catapult. 

“(Their reactions) were pure joy because there’s nothing like loading a tomato, especially if you’re 5 to 10 years old, and letting that drop weight go and seeing that big arm swinging and the tomato fly,” McGrew said. “They were purely excited to see it come into action because we’d drawn about it and we’d learned about the vocabulary. They understood the mechanics of it, and then to actually go out and pull that string and have that bar move was pretty cool.”

She remembered the Wildcat shirts that year sported a trebuchet launching tomatoes. 

McGrew will miss all the opportunities she had to be a part of her students’ lives whether it was watching them take the class pet home for the weekend, seeing children lose their first tooth or seeing a student have that a-ha moment in class when they understood a lesson.

She loved collaborating with other teachers like Katie Fradley, who is now an assistant principal at Ballard Elementary School. Together, Fradley and McGrew, or “McFrad,” had representatives from Florida Studio Theatre come to the Braden River Elementary School, where they were teaching at the time, to teach their students how to write a play. 

“We got the bright idea to do a McFrad Florida Studio,” McGrew said. “All of our children who wrote plays were able to perform their plays for their families. It was such a fun night because it was student-led. They were so cute. It was neat to watch their writing come to life.”

The McFrad team also had a starry night event where McGrew and Fradley brought telescopes into class and had their students research planets and stars. 

On a night when the sky was clear, the classes used the telescopes to see the craters of the moon, Saturn’s rings and the stars.

“It was a neat evening,” McGrew said. “For our little kids to actually see the moon and to understand this is what we’re talking about and see Saturn’s rings was pretty cool.”

In her retirement, McGrew plans to visit family in Indiana, to see Mount Rushmore, and eventually see the Northern Lights.

Her desire to give back to the community will continue as she plans to volunteer at her church and for organizations around Lakewood Ranch.

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