Retiring Red Oak principal reflects on four-decade career in education

Published 11:37 am Friday, June 9, 2023

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Andi McNeal opened Red Oak Elementary School as its first principal ten years ago. This spring, McNeal decided to retire from her 39-year-long career and finish her tenure at the school.

Retirement was not an easy decision to make for McNeal. Her official last day is July 1, and she tears up just talking about it, but she knows it’s time.

She has two children, a son working for an engineering company in Lexington and a daughter at the University of Kentucky. Her kids are one of the reasons she wants to retire- she wants to spend more time with them.

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“I love them dearly; we do a lot together. I’m looking forward to retirement to be able to be a little bit more flexible about if they wanna do things or travel and not having to worry about this schedule,” McNeal said.

McNeal’s career

McNeal has a packed resume, and although she moved around the state a bit, she always returned to teach in Jessamine County. She taught at Nicholasville Elementary for seven years and at Jessamine County Middle School for one year.

She also served as principal at Western Elementary School in Anderson County for one year, Mount Sterling Elementary School in Montgomery County for eight years, and Wilmore Elementary School for 12 years. All of these led to her time at Red Oak Elementary.

“We opened this school, so I’m the first principal they had. I spent part of my time that last year at Wilmore and part of it trying to get things going here,” McNeal said.

McNeal had always known she wanted to be a teacher.

She said she would line up her stuffed animals to teach to and try to corral her two younger brothers up to teach them.

It runs in the family since McNeal’s great-uncle was the superintendent of Jessamine County Schools and her grandmother was a teacher at one of the county’s single-room schoolhouses.

“I just always wanted to teach,” McNeal said. “Then I had a wonderful mentor at Nicholasville Elementary that really showed me the difference you can make as principal.”

The principal at Nicholasville Elementary at the time was Connie LaFave.

McNeal said LaFave gave her a lot of opportunities in leadership.

LaFave helped McNeal find her true passion in education.

“She actually helped me get my first job at Montgomery cause she had been at Montgomery County, too, and, so she just kind of showed me the impact that the principal has on the learning in your building when your principal’s an instructional leader, and just the relationship you can have with teachers and kids. I can make more of an impact in the office than I could in a regular classroom because I could try to impact all the classes instead of just my 29 kids.” McNeal said.

When opening Red Oak Elementary, many teachers didn’t want to leave other schools for the new elementary school, so when it came to hiring teachers, McNeal had a large part of the hiring process.

Some of the teachers she hired are still teaching at Red Oak. Helping teachers grow their careers- just like LaFave did for her- is another one of McNeal’s favorite parts of being an educator.

“This particular staff is amazing. And because I hired all of them, I didn’t inherit anybody who’s left with us; I just appreciate all the work that they’ve done to make Red Oak the place that it is and I just want them to continue to do the work we’ve done and I’m so appreciative of the mentors I’ve had over the past 39 years cause there’s been a lot of them, probably too many to even name and thank by they know who they are. I just hope they know that they’ve made an impact on me and on all the kids that I’ve served over these years,” McNeal said.

While trying hard not to hold back tears, McNeal said it felt like leaving Red Oak was her giving up her baby.

“I mean, I walked the slab. They built a slab here when they built East Middle.” McNeal said. “I’d come over and my daughter would walk with me, and we’d look and see and kind of dream about the layout. ‘Think this is the gym?’ and you know, as they started putting up all of the steel posts and all that, we would come over and just look, and by that time, I was named principal.” McNeal was able to listen in on construction and design meetings. She feels like she birthed the school.

After retiring, McNeal hopes to help out wherever help is needed in schools in and around Jessamine County.

“I’m an enneagram 2, so I’m a helper, so I would like to find something where I can help others. I would help teachers or principals or just whatever, wherever there’s a place to just be able to influence the future teachers and educators in our county or someplace else. I’ll stick around, I’m not moving.” McNeal said.

Thoughts on Andi McNeal:

When Red Oak Elementary’s new principal was announced, the crowd of teachers and staff in the library were happy to meet their new principal, Emily Ellsworth. But there was also a solemn feeling in the room. Principal McNeal was going to be dearly missed.

Red Oak Reading Intervention Specialist PJ Burns said “It’s hard to see her leave because everything she did was purposeful and she made our school great.”

Superintendent Matt Moore said he’s known McNeal for several years and that one thing that’s been consistent throughout her career is that she is a true leader.

“She had a great skill set, and she is just designed perfectly to be a principal at an elementary school, and all of those skills combined with her passion and desire to help students grow academically is just very unique, and she’s had a very successful career, and I hate knowing she’s retiring, but I’m also going to celebrate it because she’s earned it, and I just appreciate everything that she’s done,” Moore said, continuing that she has built Red Oak a strong foundation for the future.

A friend of McNeal and a teacher at Red Oak, Angela Miller, had this to say when she heard that when McNeal decided to retire, it was an emotional moment for the school.

Her eyes welled up with tears as she said, “Finding a replacement was very difficult. Those are big shoes to fill. She has left a legacy here,” Miller said.