By Sharon Stello | Special to the NB Indy
At Sage Hill School in Newport Beach, Gordon McNeill climbed from dean of students to head of school and, finally, to president, helping build up the young campus and its culture.
But, after 19 years, McNeill decided it was time for a new challenge.
Last August, he accepted a position as president and CEO of the Irvine-based TGR Foundation, one of famed golfer Tiger Woods’ charities, which works to bring educational opportunities to underserved youths through STEM classes, college-access programs and professional development courses for teachers, both through in-person and virtual sessions.
The organization also works with local companies like Experian and Genesis Bank to offer financial literacy classes, job shadowing and mentorships.
Now, as the organization celebrates its 25th anniversary, McNeill is teaming up with Sage Hill alumnus Nick Gross, co-founder of the Find Your Grind Foundation—the philanthropic arm of Find Your Grind, a Los Angeles-based self-discovery and career exploration platform—in a multiyear partnership to go even further in helping students connect their passions with their talents and possible careers.
This marks TGR Foundation’s first collaboration as part of its new Pathways Forward initiative to offer a variety of ways for students to achieve both professional and personal success in life.
In honor of this milestone, McNeill—who lived in Newport Beach for more than 20 years until recently moving with his wife, Dr. Anne Marie McNeill (who owns Newport Beach Dermatology & Plastic Surgery), and their five children to San Juan Capistrano—shares how education has impacted his own life and how he hopes to make a difference in the lives of young people in Orange County and beyond through these new efforts.
Q: What drew you to working in education?
A: When I was in college, the coaching bug bit me. I played college basketball at UC San Diego. And while I was there, I would take jobs working for the local high school and helping out the varsity team. … I loved watching young people work at something they’re passionate about and really dive into it all the way. And I took a diversion for seven or eight years—I worked in corporate business and I never felt like it was right. And then, when I was 28, I went back and got a teaching credential and started teaching at Corona del Mar High School. … I knew that was what I was supposed to do. And it was all about watching the lightbulb come on and watching the kid figure out who they are, what their interests are [and] how they see themselves in the world.
Q: Did education have a big impact on the course of your own life?
A: It had a huge impact. … I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I grew up. … I stumbled into a California history course at UC San Diego and I was just mesmerized, … learning a little bit about how California was settled and the Spanish and people coming out West and the conflicts and the Angelenos, and all the politics around … why we have such a car industry as opposed to … good public transportation. … And I was totally fascinated. I’m like, “I finally found something that I love.” It wasn’t the U.S. history from way back when. It wasn’t something that happened in Europe in 1480. It was relevant, right? And that was a huge thing for me. … [Then,] I went back to school when I was 39 and 40. I went to Columbia [University] to get a master’s degree and … home in on how do you take the craft of teaching to another level. That was another time when education moved me forward, so to speak.
Q: What has kept you passionate about it all these years?
A: You know, schools are political, parents have objectives, the boards have objectives, the teachers have objectives and they don’t always align. So that’s the work of it. But what keeps me coming back is, you know, I mentioned earlier, you see a kid get it. And when I say get it, it can be anything. It could be they made that first shot on the basketball court. It could be, “Wow, I’m actually good at chemistry.” … There’s no better feeling than to be part of a kid’s journey and to help them along the way.
Q: What made you want to work at Sage Hill?
A: I really enjoyed the culture in my classroom [at Corona del Mar High School] and getting things set up. And I was having a good impact. … And [then] I heard about Sage Hill opening up. A friend of mine that worked there said that there was an opening to be dean of students and I thought this is an opportunity to take what I’m doing in the classroom to a wider audience. … The mission of Sage Hill School really spoke to me about kids being creative and courageous and, you know, really inspiring that love of college. … They have service projects, they have advising programs where you get to know kids at a deep level—all the things that public schools struggle with .… So I applied and got the job. That was in 2001 and … I was able to establish the culture as dean of students and really get kids to feel empowered.
Q: In that role, then as head of school and president, what accomplishment were you most proud of?
A: The thing I’m most proud of is the culture is really strong. … The whole classroom mentality is to put the student at the center as opposed to putting the teacher at the center, and to try to give them genuine opportunities to succeed or fail on little things and kind of learn what it means to take ownership over your pathway forward. … You have to give kids genuine opportunities, otherwise they never get the chance to discover it. So we did that through … the leadership structure there, through the way all kids can be at a town meeting and get up in front of the audience at any given time. We did that through our service learning projects where we’re out in the community and students take the lead on these projects.
Q: Although you recently moved, what did you like about living in Newport Beach, in the Harbor View neighborhood?
A: That community is a throwback. There’s still basketball rims on the front of the houses and kids go out and play and they have a Fourth of July parade through the neighborhood and a Halloween decoration contest. It’s kind of a little bit of a throwback to how a community used to be before everybody got behind gates. … I just liked that you had the beach vibe when you wanted it down on the peninsula. You had Fashion Island if you wanted to walk around and … [have] a nice evening. … You had Costa Mesa not far away, you could pop into Irvine. … Over by Corona del Mar and Newport Coast, everything’s so nice. It’s just the best of all worlds.
Q: After working at Sage Hill, what made you decide to work for the TGR Foundation?
A: When I left Sage Hill, the school was in good hands. We established what we set out to do. And I like a challenge. At the time, I was 50. And I’m like, “I’ve got another career left in me.” I started looking and … there were two or three things that my next career had to have. No. 1, it had to have a higher calling. It had to serve a population that really needed support in some way. Hopefully, it was connected in some way, shape or form to education, and it had to be something that was exciting and interesting that could really make change, so to speak. I kind of stumbled into the TGR Foundation through a mutual connection. … [It has a] mission of empowering students to pursue their passion through education. …
Look, I love Sage Hill School and … I want everybody to have an experience like that, right? But that’s not the reality of the world. The public environment with the number of dollars and ratios of teachers and the state-mandated requirements, it’s hard to pull that off. So you need organizations like TGR Foundation to fill the gap. So I’m like this is like a match made in heaven. And I get to be affiliated with Tiger Woods and his vision. And the team was incredible. And then I met some of the students … and these kids are incredible. I saw some of their stories and I’m like we’ve got to make this bigger and do more.
Q: Can you tell us about some of the foundation’s programs?
A: We have an initiative called Pathways Forward and we rolled it out to coincide with the 25th anniversary. … We’re in close partnership with the Anaheim Union High School District. We bring all of their kids starting in fifth grade through the TGR Learning Lab and they have an opportunity to start taking courses and instruction, most often in STEM-related fields. And [with] Pathways Forward, … we’re starting to enter into relationships with these students where they have a chance to explore things they might end up loving. … We’ve partnered with the organization Find Your Grind … that helps students … start to figure out what it is that they love to do. So between our courses, Find Your Grind’s … lifestyle assessment and some of the tools they use to help you discover who you are and what you love to do, we’re putting kids on a pathway forward.
One pathway is they will really start loving learning and they really start loving all the things that are offered. They might still not know exactly what they want to do, but it inspires them to do better in school. All the time, we’re offering mentoring and guidance as they’re going through this. For other kids, they get really excited about a certain area and they start gravitating toward courses that put them on a pathway forward, maybe for something very specific, like robotics or cyber security or something like that. So we can actually help them get certified in those areas if they choose to do that.
Q: How did this partnership with Find Your Grind come about?
A: I still have relationships with a couple thousand of these kids [from Sage Hill], but they’re not kids anymore. Social media is really cool because I follow a lot of them and I start seeing what they’re up to. So I was following Nick Gross, who is a former student of mine. … So I was like, “What’s this guy going to do with his life?” I’m watching him and he starts having some success with a band he was part of called Half The Animal. … And one day, I see him opening up his own record label. … [Then] I see him starting this thing called Find Your Grind and I reached out. … He told me about it and we brought some of it over to Sage Hill School. … And I moved over to the TGR Foundation and … said, “This would be perfect.” So Nick and I started getting together, talking about what’s possible, how we could impact the lives of kids and the synergy between the two organizations: We have almost an identical mission statement. … I think the way we can impact kids doubles as the result of us doing it together.