ILWACO - After the surprise announcement by Tom Ackerlund two weeks ago that he was retiring as the principal at Hilltop School, the Ocean Beach School District (OBSD) wasted no time in finding a replacement.

In Gary Flood they found someone who not only has experience as top dog at that school, but also someone who has filled Ackerlund's shoes before.

Flood, athletics/activities director at Ilwaco High School the past two years, was chosen as the new principal at Hilltop last Monday by way of a call to his cell phone.

"I was taking a class in Montesano ... and my cell phone rang - of course it played 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame' - and he [OBSD Superintendent Tom Lockyer] told me I had been selected and asked if I'd like to accept that position. I said yes."

In fact, it seemed to be a no-brainer on both sides. Flood, who was principal at Hilltop from 1993 to 1997 and then replaced Ackerlund as principal at Long Beach Elementary for four years, called Ackerlund as soon as he heard about the position and expressed his interest.

"When Mr. Ackerlund retired I told them, 'Hey, I'd love to go to Hilltop.' And thank God, they put me at Hilltop."

Lockyer said Flood was a top candidate from the get-go, saying, "Gary's got a wealth of experience and we're excited about having him up at Hilltop."

Lockyer said the fact that Flood had experience at that school in the past was not a part of the decision to put him in that spot, but added it doesn't hurt either.

"Anytime you have folks that have been in an situation before, that's a plus for them. That makes it smoother."

"I think it just made sense," said Flood. "I've had so much elementary experience, and not only in this district."

Flood was a kindergarten through fourth-grade principal for two years and a fifth- through eighth-grade principal for three years at schools in Oregon before moving to the Peninsula.

A 30-year veteran of OBSD, Ackerlund was very popular amongst the students and his peers. But Flood said he expects an easy transition.

"I had that problem when I went to Long Beach School," said Flood of the expectations. "But I had a real advantage with Tom - he is a real professional. He leaves me reams of notes. I just talked to him this morning for an hour and we went over strategy and where we're at right now and where we might want to go. And he did the same thing when I went to Long Beach School in '97.

"They are big shoes to fill, but he's such a professional that he gives you all the information you need to know. I congratulate him on his career. He's an awesome person and administrator. I admire him a lot."

Flood said he was also impressed by the fact that Ackerlund and his staff completed everything before leaving for the summer.

"They finished it all for going into the fall, they're done," he said excitedly. "Tom and his staff really worked hard and finished up their planning going into the next school year."

Time of tremendous change ahead

And the next couple of school years will be monumental for the staff and students at Hilltop, as they prepare to make a transition either to one of the elementary schools or into the new middle school configuration.

It's one thing to be the new principal at a school, but it's another to be at the helm of a process that will shape the district's education set-up for many years to come, including the school improvement process, construction and renovation and grade re-configuration.

"This is the end of an era," said Flood. "Let's finish this up ... and then go from there to a better configuration. It's kind of exciting. It's an exciting time for Hilltop - let's finish this thing right. I feel like I'm coming into a great situation. It's a win situation for me ... as the new principal, try to guide it to the end."

After the elementary schools are completed, the new grade configuration will go into place. The fourth- and fifth-grade students at Hilltop will be moved back the elementary buildings, while the sixth-grade students will be moved to a temporary site - most likely at the high school campus - while Hilltop is renovated. Once finished, the sixth- through eighth-grade students will move back into the new Hilltop middle school.

Carper slated for new junior high

Flood said once Hilltop is dispatched and construction begins, his job as principal there will be over and he will move into another role in the district. Lockyer said that most likely Todd Carper, assistant principal at IHS who has been spearheading the transition efforts toward a middle school setup, would become the new junior high principal.

"Todd has expressed a definite interest in the middle school philosophy,' said Lockyer. "He will kind of lead the staff development in the next few years to understand what middle school is all about."

So where will that leave Flood? Perhaps back at another school he has manned in the past.

"I then will be somewhere else," he said. "Where that is, that will be the superintendent and the board's decision."

Once the elementary schools are both renovated and re-open, the board will decide whether they need an administrator in both buildings. Throughout the construction phase at those two sites, Bet Arena will be principal of both schools. It is conceivable that Flood could go back to Long Beach Elementary if the district decides it is needed.

"They could put me at K-5 - that would be my choice," he said.

And with the limited time frame, and so much going on, Flood has a lot to do. He will be working with Carper in getting everyone ready for the grade switch at the school as well as trying to get the most from his staff and students educationally.

"When I first go in, I'm going to go with the plan they have," he said. "It's always been my strategy to roll up your sleeves, work hard and join the team. I'm the principal, so obviously I have an important role to play. But I still think every member, including the principal, is part of the team."

Leading back-to-basics effort

But with the time he has, Flood said he will in some ways be leading a back-to-basics attitude at the school.

"My idea is academics," he stated. "What are we doing with academics for kids so they improve and excel, and they strive for excellence in academics?"

He said he will also look at what they are doing for the students in the way of social responsibility and character.

"I think it is crucial that we are developing people, not just people who can do reading, writing and computing, but we're developing people who are kind, who are considerate, who serve and are willing to go the extra mile to help out. My goal is to teach the whole person."

And though it will be a lot of hard work over the summer to prepare to move into a role he hasn't occupied in several years, Flood said he is looking forward to the challenge.

"You have to change your mindset," he said. "For two years I've been running on a certain thing that I do ... for one, you're going to be a principal of a building ... and that's what I do, period. Secondly, you have to realize that you're with a different-aged kid again, so you have to gear to the intermediate grades. Study hard and just prepare yourself.

"The one good thing is, my sense of humor will work better because it's so poor," he laughed. "The older kids don't get as much a kick out of it as the fourth- through sixth-graders."

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