Sweet Home High School alumna becomes assistant principal at junior high

Benny Westcott

After 16 years teaching at South Albany High School, Amanda Marvin GaVette started Monday, Aug. 1, as the new assistant principal at Sweet Home Junior High.

Despite the new role, however, she’s definitely no stranger; she grew up in town, graduating as a Husky in 2001.

“I never really imagined I’d be back here, but it’s really cool to almost come back in full circle,” she said. “South Albany gave me my wings to build up the type of leader I thought I could be, and to come back home is kind of cool.”

The Millersburg resident worked at South Albany first as an English teacher and state test coordinator, then as an English and PE teacher.

She later taught PE and the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID, an academic acceleration program that prepares students in the academic middle for four-year colleges) elective, served as its school site coordinator and program instructional coach.

She also led the South Albany dance team, taking the RedHawks to the Class 5A state championships in 2014, 2015 and 2017.

But it was her Sweet Home School District teachers who first set her on course.

“I had Mrs. (Nina) Ingram as my first-grade teacher, Mrs. (Shari) Furtwangler as my fourth-grade teacher, and Mrs. (Kelly) Gabriel as my sixth-grade teacher (at Hawthorne Elementary School), and they were fantastic,” GaVette said. “I loved little kids, so that’s why I thought I wanted to be in elementary education.

“But then Steve Emmert was my English teacher in high school, and he made me love that subject area and love writing, so that’s how I ended up going into English.

“Larry Johnson was the athletic director at Sweet Home during that time, and he was super-great to me too.”

“I feel like I always grew up knowing I wanted to be a teacher, because I loved playing school with my little sister (Keri Schneider),” she continued. “Then, I had some of the most incredible people, and most influential people in my life, that made such a difference during a time when I struggled a bit personally. I just had so many educators that made such a huge difference in my life, that I just knew that I had to pay it forward.”

Born in Elgin, Ill., GaVette’s family moved to Sweet Home because of relatives in the area. Her parents, Annette and Chuck Smith, owned and operated Chucky’s in Holley-Woods, a butcher shop on 25057 Springer Road, which has since been sold and reborn as Holy Cow Meats.

“I learned a lot about work ethic from watching my parents run that shop,” GaVette said. “I try to pour that into my work.”

She attended Western Oregon University in Monmouth after her high school graduation.

“Initially I thought I wanted to be an elementary school teacher, but I started coaching the dance team at Central High School in Independence,” she recalled, “and then quickly realized that I really loved my interaction with teenagers and wanted to continue coaching after college.”

So GaVette switched majors, from elementary education to middle- and high-school language arts education, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 2006.

After that, she began teaching English and coaching the dance team at South Albany High School. Then, in 2010, she returned to WOU for a Masters of Science in physical education and health. She graduated from that program in 2014 while balancing coaching full-time and new motherhood. Eventually, a talk with former South Albany High School Principal Brent Belveal helped push her into administration.

“One time we were talking and I said, ‘Tell me about this administration thing, because I’m kind of intrigued by it,'” GaVette said. “And he told me there’s really a need, especially for women, to be in administration, and encouraged me to wait until a point in my life when I felt like it was OK for my family.”

She called Belveal a “wonderful mentor.”

“I loved how he had a way of really listening to staff and empowering them, and making the decisions that were best for kids, and then taking care of staff and empowering staff to be able to take care of the kids as well,” she said.

So, during the COVID-19 pandemic, GaVette pursued classes at Portland State University, acquiring an initial administration license in 2021.

“When I really started looking into administration seriously, I made the comment that I would love to end up in a small town and in a community like Sweet Home, because I understand the clientele,” she said.

It would prove to be quite a change from Albany.

“The two-(high) school town kind-of threw me for a while when I first moved there,” she said of the larger city. “So, I love that everybody shows up for ‘Friday Night Lights’ here. The alumni are there supporting their school, and there’s resources that are available in small towns like this, where everybody rallies around the school.”

Even though it was different from Sweet Home in some ways, GaVette appreciates her time at South Albany.

“Sweet Home gave me a really good foundation, but leaving for a little bit also gave me a different appreciation and new insights and that kind of stuff,” she said. “I just want every student to be able to see what is possible in their lives, and to have the confidence to be able to take that risk to achieve it.”

She also hopes to use tips of the trade from her previous gig in her new role.

“There are some great things that I’ve seen that I think I can bring with me from Albany, as far as homeroom and ideas for curriculum,” she explained.

She already notices positives at the junior high.

“The staff is incredibly dedicated,” she said. “I’ve felt like that from the moment they walked through the doors this year. This is a really great staff. They find a lot of ownership in what they do. People have been so incredibly welcoming to me. It makes me feel really good.”

It helps that it’s a welcome back to Sweet Home, not a first appearance.

“I’m grateful that I have relationships still within this community that I can use to build on,” GaVette said. “So even though I feel like I’m kind of new coming back because it’s been so long since I’ve been through the school district, I can really anchor to those relationships. Because that’s the biggest challenge when you’re first moving into any role.”

In addition to fostering old relationships, GaVette looks forward to making new ones.

“I will always root what I do in relationships,” she said. “So, it’s going to be really important for me to build relationships with students, families, and staff. And there are a lot of good things going on in this school that I want to help and support and see where we can drive to even greater heights. Continuing to build on that culture of being a family here at the Junior High is really important.”

She’s already seen that family come together in meaningful ways.

“There are districts that don’t have bus drivers and still have teacher positions that are left unfilled, but we don’t really have much of that going on right now,” GaVette explained. “I’m not exactly sure why, but maybe it’s that community where we rally together and pull together to do what we need to do.”

GaVette said she strives to help kids become successful.

“I just think back to when I was in school, and how that one positive adult can change a child’s life trajectory,” she said. “If I can make a difference in even one child’s life, I feel like I’ve done something good on this earth. We have the opportunity every day to positively impact students’ lives, families’ lives – lives of the community, really.”

Much of her teaching philosophy is informed by athletics. As a Sweet Home High student, she participated in cheerleading and dance, which spurred her into coaching at the age of 19.

“I have always been a coach at heart,” she said. “I’ve always just needed that opportunity to help coach people to reach their best.”

Among the challenges she faces at the junior high is “creating some systems that can support some of the really great things that we’re doing.”

For example, school attendance has been an issue since COVID-19, something she also noticed in Albany. “That’s a big thing that I would like to see us move forward in,” she said.

When addressing issues, GaVette said, “I try to be as optimistic as I can be. I’m very solution oriented. I don’t like to get stuck in the weeds of the problems. Yes, we all need a place to complain. But then we need to move on to the next step of, what are solutions that we can provide for that?”

She said her role at the junior high will focus on student behavior, with relationships as key.

“I think that when you root behavior management in relationships, you get a lot further with that,” she said.

And she doesn’t like to lead alone.

“I believe that I am very collaborative,” she said. “I don’t ever want to make decisions in silos. It’s important for me to get a good understanding of what the school is and feels like from students, families and staff.”

GaVette and her husband Justin GaVette, a social studies teacher at South Albany High School, have three children, Mackenzie, 5; Gabriel, 7; and Lily, 9; who are all in the Greater Albany Public Schools system.

In her free time, GaVette enjoys attending her children’s sports games, glamping, and traveling.

For now, she’s just happy to see some normalcy return to education.

“The kids are walking through hallways well and have smiles on their faces,” she said. “It’s so nice to have a normal start to the year. No masks-we are back to smiles again.”