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With EGR’s Shubel, ‘We never coasted’

Leaving a lasting legacy and looking forward to a less-scheduled life

The East Grand Rapids Schools Foundation and Alumni Association has established the Dr. Sara Magaña Shubel Lifelong Learning Scholarship, which will award funds for teachers or staff seeking learning or training opportunities.

“Our community could not think of a better way than to honor her commitment to learning by creating a scholarship in her name,” said school board President Natalie Bernecker.

“It’s her passion: helping people learn and giving people the opportunity to learn. She truly is a believer in continuing ed. for everyone. And capacity building; she has always wanted to make sure the people we are working with are always learning, so we can continue to learn from one another.”

It’s nearly the end of another school year, but instead of coming to a gentle stop, Dr. Sara Magaña Shubel sits at the helm of what feels, as she puts it, “like a merry-go-round, trying to get everything accomplished.”

There’s the usual but always vital: signing hundreds of high school diplomas, working with administrators to finalize the budget for the next school year and planning for new-teacher orientation week.

With a record 14 staff members taking early separation incentives offered by East Grand Rapids (and other districts), “that’s a lot of expertise walking out the door,” Shubel said.

As in previous years, she has met or will meet with every new teacher who has been recommended. By design, they will likely be younger and less experienced than those they replace. But she knows what it is to be a newcomer at EGR, and wants to spend time with every one of them.

And then there’s the most unusual change coming soon: Shubel will retire at the end of July, after 12 years at the district’s helm. Finalists have been selected and interviews are scheduled to take place next week. Her replacement is hoped to start Aug. 1.

The current school board will have big shoes to fill indeed.

“When I wrote the board president (Natalie Bernecker) a letter initially, I said ‘you probably will not be looking at someone who can check off the boxes on every single thing,’” Shubel said. After all, “When I came, I followed someone who had been here 25 years.”

While Shubel was newcomer to EGR, she spent the previous 15 years as director of school development services for the Ingham Intermediate School District, and had also been an education consultant for the Michigan Department of Education and an elementary school teacher.

Dr. Sara Magaña Shubel will retire in July as superintendent of East Grand Rapids Public Schools

Brian Ellis, long time board member and former board president, said he remembered during the hiring process, “her incredible depth of knowledge on curriculum issues.” That was key, he said, “because our goal was not to rest on our laurels as a high-achieving district. We wanted to set an even higher standard.”

Jeanne Glowicki, who started at the district as an elementary principal in 1998 and joined the administrative team as assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction in 2005, said she appreciated that Shubel questioned long-held practices.

“That’s very hard to do in EGR, where everything is tradition,” Glowicki acknowledged. “She did it in a way that was collaborative. And as the trust level grew — that’s how she operates — we could bounce anything off her and we could question.

“That is one of her huge strengths. She’s not afraid to make a decision, but she will make all the players understand why she made the decision she did. I think that takes a lot of finesse.”

Also calling for finesse: Shubel was the first female superintendent at EGR, and, when she was hired, one of just two in Kent ISD. With her leaving in July, there will only be 1 out of 20 districts — though there is opportunity for that to change next year with the hiring of seven new superintendents.

“It’s a perspective thing,” Shubel said flatly. “We bring a different perspective.”

It can’t be brushed aside that, though perceptions are evolving, males and females in executive roles typically face a different work/life balance.

Superintendent Sara Magaña Shubel gets a hug from first-grader Claire VanZanten

It’s 24/7

Her first year, Shubel was a new superintendent and a new district mom. Her husband, Greg, commuted daily for two years to his position as director of curriculum for DeWitt Public Schools until he was hired at Forest Hills Public Schools as an elementary principal.

So it was Superintendent/Mom Shubel who took sons Gabe and Niko to ninth and seventh-grade registration, respectively. Because the superintendent side is “on” 24 hours a day, seven days a week, she said, “even in the aisle at Costco,” she got to work mingling with fellow middle-school parents until “Niko pulled me aside and said ‘Do you have to speak to everyone? This is embarrassing.’ ”

She can laugh about that now, but still recalls her first year as “unbelievably hard.”

“I went to every single social event at all of the buildings. Every single one,” she said. “That was thanks to (board members’) guidance about how important those seemingly little pieces were going to be.”

“It’s a very high-expectation district across the board, from the custodial staff to the superintendent and everywhere in between,” Shubel said. “Our community is beyond generous, and I learned that they will support us as much as we need, as long as they feel we have the best interest of the students.”

Superintendent Sara Magaña Shubel with Bruce Towne Jr., custodial head; and Christine Mapes, high school social studies teacher, before last year’s homecoming football game

Board “A Gift”

Ellis recalled that “every meeting, I would walk out so thankful that she was leading our district. Our parents are very demanding, very knowledgeable, passionate and engaged, and Sara has always handled that very deftly. She has very good interpersonal skills… and her depth of knowledge on any topic carries the day.

“From our first meeting it was so clear that she sets a real high bar. You need to come prepared, and have your supporting documentation with you, because she always had hers.”

Throughout her years at East, Shubel has worked with 20 board members. She called it “a gift to have such an effective, highly functioning board” that has elected presidents “who really know how to work with the whole board.”

Examples of that “even higher standard” Ellis mentioned: during her tenure the district implemented a laptop program for every student at the high school and middle school. Two years ago, the high school earned International Baccalaureate designation. And the district continues to earn state and national recognition for teaching and learning.

How’d she do it? “You want to see the bruises?” Shubel asked with a laugh. “It took a lot. A lot of hard work, from many people.” That included the district’s “remarkable education foundation,” Shubel said, which envisioned IB participation as much as three decades before.

She also credited EGR Now!, a community fundraising initiative started five years ago to offset funding cuts. That effort has raised more than $1.8 million so far, helping to bring paraeducators back to classrooms, maintain the district-wide world language program, and more.

Lasting Legacy

Shubel has led creation of district-wide processes, and stayed at the forefront of educational and leadership issues. She presented at state and national conferences on topics such as school improvement, increasing student achievement, leadership and strategic planning.

She also served on a several state and regional professional boards, including as past president of the international Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. The ASCD has more than 150,000 members representing superintendents, K-12 teachers and administrators, and higher education faculty from more than 100 countries.

She visited schools around the world, including Australia, China, India and Vietnam to meet with educational leaders and gain a more global perspective on educational leaders.

“She has gotta retire feeling extremely positive about the impact of that in a district that’s extremely rich in tradition,” Glowicki said. “We easily could have just kept coasting. With her, I never felt like we coasted.”

Ellis called Shubel’s 12-year run at EGR “an incredible achievement.”

Shubel’s advice for her successor: “Really do a listening tour,” she said. “There’s nothing broken. The challenge is, how do we continue to move forward, to the next level? What would that look like?”

Looking forward to some R & R

Now, she said, she looks forward to catching the Michigan State art fair with husband, Greg, who is retiring as principal at Thornapple Elementary. She also looks ahead to going on a girls’ weekend in Denver, and reading books on a regular basis, not just on vacations.

Shubel said she is thankful to be part of a solid group of girlfriends since before grad school. “If it wasn’t for that, I would have no friends now. They have hung in there even when I had to call and say ‘I thought I could make it, but there’s an issue.’ ”

Anything else?

Shubel reconsiders the whole laying-out-of-plans thing, and says with a smile, “I don’t want to have a discussion about what’s next for the next six to nine months.”

Superintendent Sara Magaña Shubel gets a hug from teacher Kaelynn Benham as teacher Brett Scheidel looks on
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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio


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