Man of Steele: Education, family IRSD superintendent’s top priorities

DAGSBORO — Education has been in Mark Steele’s blood for a long time.

A 1977 graduate of Indian River High School and 1981 graduate of Salisbury State, Mr. Steele returned to his alma mater in the 1981-82 school year as a teacher.

It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

“An interesting story,” said Mr. Steele. “I had done student teaching at Laurel for seven weeks. I was going to do my second student teaching in the spring. I was supposed to be at Berlin Intermediate. But on spring break a teacher at Indian River High School was involved in a car accident and they did not think he was going to return. So, Dr. Everett Toomey called me. He was the principal at Indian River and asked me if I was available to finish the year. He talked to my departmental people in education at SSU. They made it work so that I got the opportunity to teach my last seven weeks at Indian River High School during my senior year – for no pay! What they had to do was hire a substitute teacher to sit in the room with me while I did all of the planning, all of the teaching and all of the work.”

Indian River School District Superintendent Mark Steele began his long career with the district as a teacher in the 1981-82 school year.

And that led to an offer from IRSD.

“I ended up getting a teaching position right after I graduated,” said Mr. Steele. “The district offered me a teaching position at Indian River High School. I took it. I started there in the 1981-82 school year – math and physics and computer science. I had all of that in my background as well.”

He’s been with the district ever since. At present, he serves as superintendent of one of the largest school districts in Delaware.

Nine years of teaching gave way to being named assistant principal at IRHS under then principal Dr. Lewis Patterson in 1991-92.

When Dr. Patterson retired in 1999, Mr. Steele became IRHS principal. He held that position until June 2013 when he joined central office at the Indian River Education Complex as assistant superintendent.

When IRSD Superintendent Dr. Susan Bunting retired to take Gov. Carney’s cabinet position of Secretary of Department of Education this past January, Mr. Steele was named acting superintendent. Following a March 2 referendum that garnered overwhelming community support, he was named superintendent.

Mr. Steele and wife Linda reside in Dagsboro. They have three children: Stephanie, Brittany and Justin (all are products of IRHS) and two grandsons.

Son Justin is a guidance counselor at IRHS; Stephanie is a first-grade teacher at John M. Clayton Elementary and Brittany is an emergency room nurse at Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury.

Ms. Steele, who turned 58 on June 14, has an undergraduate degree in secondary mathematics and a master’s in public school administration from Salisbury State, now Salisbury University.

This week’s Person to Meet: Mark Steele.

Was administration always in your game plan?

“No. I always knew I wanted to teach because when I was in college on breaks I would substitute teach for extra money. And I loved it. So, I knew I wanted to be a teacher but I swore I’d never be an administrator. And then, three kids come along. And it’s a choice.”

“I worked at James H. Groves Adult Education High School at Sussex Tech two nights a week, four hours a night. I taught science and math. I worked for the Sussex County Board of Realtors teaching the real estate math course. The other night during that week I went and took my master’s level courses. And Friday nights, I coached football. I was coaching as well as doing all these other things … I would go in school around 7 (a.m.). I would leave football practice around quarter of six and go straight up to Groves, teach until 10 o’clock, come home, get dinner and go to bed.”

Mark Steele

“It was a choice. Do I want to continue that pace or do I want to go into administration where I could pretty much have about the same money but it’s more concentrated? I’ve actually done that for 27 years and I love it. There are challenges but I love it. I think that is the part that makes it fun.”

As a high-level administrator, what’s the greatest challenge?

“I think one of the biggest challenges is to make sure you communicate with all of the stakeholders. That is always a challenge today. You’ve got certain segments of people by age who are older people and tend more to only read newspapers … less tendency to go on a computer and look up news. So, there are some multi-levels of tools to use to communicate with people. You kind of have to work on doing that.”

“I’ve got to be honest, I think one of the most stunning things for me this year was doing the town hall meetings for the referendum on Facebook. I had never done Facebook until then. It was my very first Facebook experience, ever! But I saw after 24 hours it had reached 8,000 to 9,000 people. I thought: ‘This is incredible!”

What’s your fondest memory thus far in education?

“I loved being a teacher; being involved with the kids. Being an assistant principal was a challenge but I worked with great people. When I was a principal I’d have to say I loved that position the best, without a doubt. I had good people. I had a knack for selecting good people. We put together an unbelievable staff at Indian River High School. To this day it would be near impossible in my mind to put together a staff better than what I had when I was principal. No matter what I would ask of them … if it was good for the kids they would do it and never question it.”

How difficult was it to leave IRHS?

“It was very difficult for me to take that step to leave there and come here. It was just a smart financial move. But you had more influence on kids at that (principal’s) position than anywhere else.”

Talk about your close-knit family ties and being a grandfather?

“My wife and kids, this family is just unbelievable. We are together all the time. I got two little grand-boys; Vince and Dominick. They love to hang around ‘Pop Pop.’ There are times when I will take a vacation day here and there to do nothing more than stay home and kind of give my wife a break a little bit and play with them. I love doing that.”

“I am in the middle of a tree house for my grand-boys. I’m building it. And it’s not just a throw-together. It’s a pretty elaborate tree house. It’s a lot of hard work and I ache some nights; I can hardly lift my arms. But, I love doing physical work.”

So, you’re a handy man?

“I’ve always been somebody who instead of hiring electricians and plumbers I do my own. I’ve learned how to do all this stuff. Anybody can do it. You’ve just got to take that step over being afraid. Make sure you turn the breaker off before you do electric. Make sure, with plumbing, you turn the water off before you cut the pipe. Hey; I’ve been shocked. And I’ve been soaked. So, I’m learning in some cases the hard way. I love the physical labor of being able to do hard, strenuous work. That is a stress reliever for me.”

Talk about your fermented hobby: wine-making.

“Yes, we enjoy wine. We like the drinking part but we also enjoy the making. My wife, particularly, she is excellent. That is a hobby. We’ve made wine using local grapes, local fruits, and we’ve made it from getting our wine juice from other countries. It’s something nice for us to do.”

Free time: What do you like to do?

“I love to fish. Generally, the inland bay; I flounder fish, striper fish. I have a 20-foot Carolina skiff that I’ve had for six or seven years now. I like to surf fish. I like early-in-the-morning fishing. I love to get up early and get out there so I can see the sun rise. Or late at night to see a sunset. I love doing that.”

Is retirement in the picture yet?

“The district offered me a two-year contract. I’ve got some ideas that I want to do for the district.”

A July 6 school board retreat was one of those ideas?

“I think there’s a lot of room for positive change. One thing you have to do to make positive change is you’ve got to work together. I just think our board would benefit from it. We’re going to look at legal issues. I’m going to give them a good sociological survey of our district. You have a school district our size. We have 12,000 13,000 people come out and vote. You say, ‘My God’s; that’s a lot of people.’ But realistically there is 78,000-people plus in our school district. So, we should be able to reach all of them.”

“The other big thing is the strategic plan. I think you have to have a good plan moving forward and not live year by year but come up with a 5- to 7-year plan that we can share with the community.”

You’ve taken relentless ribbing about your duck hunting adventures. How about another Fun Fact?

“As assistant superintendent part of my duties was to make weather calls in the morning. So back in, I guess it was likely November or December, about 4 o’clock in the morning I look at WBOC predicting fog. I’ve got to go check and I was so tired. So, I threw on my robe and slipped into my sandals, jumped in my truck and drove around and didn’t see anything. I come back home.”

“It’s now about 4:30. I checked WBOC and it was like dense fog was right on edge of the west side. So, I called Pep Lewis, ‘I’m heading out onto Nine Foot Road and I’m going down through Gumboro and check for fog.’ I get down to Nine Foot Road and no fog. I turn around to come back and all a sudden I heard this ‘ding, ding, ding’. I looked down, my right rear tire … 32, 29, 18, right down to zero. I pulled off the side of the road wearing nothing but my robe and my sandals. And I’m sitting there thinking, ‘What the heck am I going to do now?’ I called Pep. ‘I’ve got a flat tire. I’m down here almost to the end of the Nine Foot Road.’ I was down there in those fields where there’s no houses around. He said ‘Well, I’m just coming off Rt. 20. I’ll go down there and meet you.’ I thought, ‘Oh my God, he’ll take a dad-gone picture of me and it will be all over the district.’”

“So, I called my son: ‘Get out of bed, get up here and pick me up right now. Here’s where I am.’ He got me, took me home. I finally got some clothes on and went back … and we could not get the tire off.”

“But the moral of the story is very simple: never walk out of that house unless you’ve got your clothes on. Because you don’t know who you’re going to run into at 4:30 in the morning. I learned my lesson very quickly.”

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

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