by Lauren Odomirok

MOORESVILLE – Keith Gentle recalls students splashing purple and green marker ink across classroom whiteboards in an attempt to differentiate sine from cosine.

After receiving an aerospace engineering degree from N.C. State University, Gentle taught algebra, technical math, pre-calculus and honors and Advanced Placement calculus for 19 years at A.L. Brown and Lake Norman high schools before transitioning into school administration.

In 2007, he became an instructional facilitator and assistant principal at Lake Norman, then served as principal at both Monticello School in Statesville and the Collaborative College for Technology & Leadership in Troutman.

Last fall, he accepted the role of principal at Lake Norman when Todd Griffin stepped down after an investigation into accusations that Griffin embezzled $50 from the school’s athletic booster club.

“I wanted to finish my career at some point by coming back to a traditional high school,” Gentle said. “I try to stay grounded in my teaching experience. I think that helps me with relating to teachers a little bit better because I’m a teacher at heart.”

Now that he’s readjusting to a larger environment, the challenges and victories of overseeing one of the top public schools in the state are sinking in.

“You learn from the principals that you’ve worked for, and you kind of see the things they do, but you really don’t see it all until you get involved in it for yourself,” he said.

Lake Norman has a 96 percent graduation rate, the highest in the state for a school with more than 500 students per grade.

One of his primary concerns is getting the school acclimated to the Common Core State Standards curriculum that’s being implemented across the country. It goes into full effect this school year.

The curriculum creates a standardized course of study in language arts, math, history, social studies and science, so students across state lines will learn lessons they can apply outside the classroom and be prepared to enter the global economy.

Gentle will also conduct a “needs assessment” of his staff to receive curricular ideas.

“I think it’s important to get input from your staff,” Gentle said. “I could come in and dictate a lot of things, but then I’d be working on them by myself, which is not going to be beneficial.”

Teachers are taking notice of his inclusive stance.

“He’s a humanist who is focused on people. The kids come first, and there are a lot of kids at a school, but the conversations are always about how we can better serve our students,” history teacher Jon Busch said. “That’s his priority, not just managing the school.”

Theater instructor Kelly Dowell looks forward to the school’s future with Gentle at the helm.

“I’ve always thought he was fair and just,” Dowell said. “He brings a sense of calm, structure and strength to our school. He will say what he means and mean what he says.”

Civics teacher Frank Hobby said Gentle has been very open to suggestions from teachers on how to make Lake Norman a stronger school, including reincorporating after- and before-school detention, which disappeared since his teaching days due to lack of funding.

Gentle also wants to hear more Wildcat pride reverberating down the halls of the 10-year-old school.

“It’s not a feeder school like you would see in a lot of places where a tradition has been built from elementary school up like, ‘We know we’re going to Lake Norman High School, home of the Wildcats!’”

As the world moves into a digital age, Gentle knows his students must keep improving their skills to be viable job applicants.

“I think the greatest challenge we’re facing is a tough job market that we need to make sure students are prepared for by furthering their education,” he said.

In December 2012, Iredell-Statesville Schools scored a $20 million federal grant, allowing the district to provide in-school laptops or tablets to more than 9,300 middle and high school students as part of the U.S. Department of Education’s “Race to the Top” initiative.

The grant will reach the district’s nine middle schools and six of its seven high schools. Lake Norman was excluded because at least 40 percent of a school’s students had to come from low-income households to qualify.

Gentle said Superintendent Brady Johnson has assured him that Lake Norman would receive the same resources and staffing as other schools that were part of the grant.

During his tenure at the Collaborative College for Technology & Leadership, Gentle watched as students grew proficient with Google Docs, Moodle and posting assignments online while their teachers replied digitally in class through a one-to-one laptop initiative.

He said the process ran smoothly in a small school, and the challenge would be transferring that model to a much larger school like Lake Norman.

“I’m not convinced that would be the best program here on that scale,” he said. “There’s a lot of maintenance and cost that go along with that, but maybe it is. It depends on what we’re going to use the technology to support.”

With no crystal ball in his office, Gentle is incapable of predicting the future with 100-percent accuracy.

“We’re going to need to prepare our students for what they need,” he said. “To be honest, we don’t even entirely know what that is yet.”