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McNeal Elementary School celebrates 20th anniversary

Teachers, students and administrators, past and present, celebrate two decades of memories.

Ellenton's Barbara Bostrom, the niece of Gilbert McNeal, Lakewood Ranch's Jessica Chmielarski, the granddaughter of McNeal, and Dylan and Michael Chmielarski, the great-grandsons of McNeal, celebrate his legacy at Gilbert W. McNeal Elementary School's 20th anniversary.
Ellenton's Barbara Bostrom, the niece of Gilbert McNeal, Lakewood Ranch's Jessica Chmielarski, the granddaughter of McNeal, and Dylan and Michael Chmielarski, the great-grandsons of McNeal, celebrate his legacy at Gilbert W. McNeal Elementary School's 20th anniversary.
Photo by Liz Ramos
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Nicholas Sevarino remembered being introduced to the First Lego League on the opening day of fifth grade at Gilbert W. McNeal Elementary School in 2016. 

Denise Touchberry, the engineering teacher and Lego advisor, had her students creating plans for a competition that included programming robots. First Lego League encourages students to devise a solution to a real-world problem using Legos and by inventing a robot. 

“I just remember at that exact moment, I realized this is what I wanted to do with my life — engineering,” said Sevarino, who is now a senior at Southeast High School. “I went on to do a lot of engineering stuff in middle school and high school, and I’m branching off from there. I’m in (Technology Student Association) right now, and I’ve been in TSA for four years. I’m the state secretary for TSA. I feel like that all stemmed from here.”

Sevarino came back to where his engineering aspirations began Oct. 11 as McNeal Elementary School celebrated its 20th anniversary with a Legacy Night.

Teachers, administrators and students both past and present filled the cafeteria to reminisce and celebrate the legacy of the elementary school, which opened its doors Aug. 11, 2003. 

Students are welcomed by Ronna Moore, the first principal of Gilbert W. McNeal Elementary School, before the school's opening day on Aug. 11, 2003.
Courtesy image

“When McNeal Elementary School first opened its doors two decades ago, —wow, that sounds like a long time ago — it was a vision and a dream and a promise of quality education and community,” said Sheila Waid, the current principal, to the hundreds that attended Legacy Night. “Today that vision has become a reality. Our school has been a beacon of hope, a place where young minds have been nurtured, where dreams have been fostered and where lifelong friendships have been formed.”

A lasting legacy

Every time Jessica Chmielarski walks into the school’s office with her sons, first grader Dyland and second grader Michael, she’s reminded of the legacy of her grandfather, Gilbert McNeal. His photo hangs in the office as the namesake of the school. 

“He has that big smile on his face and those rosy cheeks like he always had,” Chmielarski said of the photo. “It means a lot to tell the kids now this is your great-grandfather’s school. He worked hard in the community helping out people, and he’s well known for helping people and getting them through their path of what they wanted to do. … I know he would be very proud of my kiddos and very proud to know that the legacy he put in this place will continue through his great-grandchildren.”

Chmielarski loved knowing the school had a few special connections to Gilbert McNeal besides being named after him. She said the school’s opening day Aug. 11, 2003, also was Gilbert McNeal’s birthday. The school also is located on Lorraine Road, and Gilbert McNeal’s wife is Lorraine McNeal.

“I get goosebumps thinking of it,” Chmielarski said. “It’s pretty cool to finally be a part of the McNeal (school) family.”

Andrea Berninger, a second grade teacher who has been at McNeal since its opening day, recalled the opening day of the school. He said there was a little bit of anticipation and nerves that always come with opening a new school but also excitement. 

Several of the teachers from the opening year had followed in then-Principal Ronna Moore’s footsteps, leaving Braden River Elementary to teach at McNeal. 

“We were able to kind of walk through the school even before it was finished being built and see the rooms,” Berninger said. “Back then, it was kind of like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is state of the art and beautiful.’ The rooms were all big, and we were just so excited to get here.”

A special place

Teachers, students and administrators said McNeal Elementary always has been a special place. Several people said the school has “good vibes” because of the passion the teachers have for their students and each other. 

Greg Lloyd, a physical education teacher who has been at McNeal since its opening, recalled when he became a father for the first time. He walked into school with many questions about what to do. 

“I might have been the only male teacher, and I got so much good advice from all the women here,” he said. “I would say I’m having this problem with my son, and they selflessly gave good information. My teachers gave my son extra clothes their (sons) had grown out of. They didn’t even think twice about it.”

Kindergartner Charlie Doyle and his mother, Abigail Doyle, work on painting a tile that will forever be in the halls of McNeal Elementary School.
Photo by Liz Ramos

Beringer said during a particularly cold winter, McNeal families collected dozens of blankets and heaters within three days to donate to their students and their families who lived on Faulkner Farms. 

“I hate to sound cliche but it does become a family,” Lloyd said. “You actually at the end of summer start to miss your coworkers. You come in and see them, you get hugs and you’re happy to see everybody again. You tell stories about what you did over the summer.”

Lloyd said when his son, Caden, who now is a freshman at Lakewood Ranch High, was moving onto middle school from McNeal Elementary, he told him, “I had all the great teachers.”

“I said, ‘There are no bad teachers at McNeal. I could have dropped you in any one of the classrooms just randomly, and it would have been fine,’” Lloyd said. 

Current fifth graders Lilly Davis, Lucas Reulet and Caroline Martin all said their favorite aspect of their school is the teachers. They said they’re all nice and fair, and some of them give out candy, which is a bonus to them. 

“McNeal is a great place to learn, have fun and meet new friends,” Davis said. “I love all the collaboration and creativity (among students) and how they always care about others.”

Davis loved participating in an engineering project where students were using Legos to make a model of a town and train. She said it was a team effort to get the right angles and types of blocks to build their town. The beginning of the project started with arguments, but Davis said the students worked together to solve any problems.

“Now it looks like a beautiful town with a train going around it,” Davis said of the project.

Years of innovation and fun

Over the years, McNeal Elementary has been at the forefront of a few education initiatives within the School District of Manatee County. 

Cheryl McGrew, who served as principal from 2015 to 2022, played an integral part in creating the STEM curriculum that is now used in every elementary school throughout the district. McNeal and Freedom elementary schools were the first in the county to have the STEM labs that are now common in each elementary school. 

Cheryl McGrew, who served as principal at McNeal Elementary School from 2015 to 2022, was integral in creating the STEM curriculum that is now used in every elementary school throughout the district. McNeal Elementary was one of the first in the county to have a STEM lab.
File photo

In the 2022-2023 school year, McNeal Elementary became the first Leader in Me Lighthouse School in the district. There are 173 schools in Florida that are Leader in Me schools, and of those, only 41 schools are Leader in Me Lighthouse Schools. The program is an evidence-based, comprehensive educational leadership and school improvement model.

The school also knows how to have fun. 

Andrew Sevarino, who is now 19, remembers running around the field behind the school as part of the annual Fun Run. He recalled running at least 10 laps.

“I was a runner as a kid so I definitely had a fantastic time,” he said. 

“I was there for the Keeva Juice mainly,” Nicholas Sevarino said with a laugh. “It was probably just strawberries and mangoes blended together, but that was something that enticed me to go. It was also just that environment of light hearted fun all the time.”

Beringer remembered Math Count competitions. The motto, she said, was “Beat Willis” Elementary School. The day McNeal claimed victory over Willis 12 years ago is one she’ll always remember. 

“When the student won, I picked him and I was like, ‘We did it!’” Beringer said laughing.  



Liz Ramos

Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.

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