It’s 4 a.m., and Wanda Creel is awake.
“I am definitely a morning person,” she said, “and do my best work in the morning when things are fresh.”
The educator and soon-to-be superintendent of Gainesville City Schools will eat a piece of fruit — usually an apple or orange — and kick-start her day with a Diet Coke.
Wanda Creel has been a familiar name to Gainesville school leaders and employees for some time, since she was announced as the incoming superintendent in December. Now, with a little more than a week before her contract officially begins, Creel is making the rounds at all of the schools and spending time getting to know her staff.
“I have found that Gainesville is an exciting place to be,” she said. “People are warm and welcoming. It’s eager around here right now, to get ready for the upcoming school year.”
But it did take some time for her to consider making the change, particularly coming from her previous position as superintendent of the Barrow County School System.
“It grew on me,” she said. “The thought of being here had to grow on me. And it was just really getting my head wrapped around changing.
“I had to ask myself the question of, ‘Is it time to go and learn something else new and with other people?’ It wasn’t that I was specifically looking for a change, but I had to ask myself, ‘Is it time to learn something new?’”
What ultimately convinced her that Gainesville was where she wanted to be was the positive attitude she noticed reflected in school board members and other Gainesville leaders.
“What I find so refreshing about Gainesville City Schools is (like) the movie, where it says ‘You had me from hello,’ the board members had me from the word ‘ambassadors,’” she said. “I believe that they truly see themselves as ambassadors for the Gainesville City School System. And that’s not just the board members that I see that. I see principals and district leaders, and they truly are about being ambassadors.”
She’s been visiting Gainesville since her appointment to the position, but has pretty much made it over here every day since May, working closely with outgoing Superintendent Merrianne Dyer.
“Merrianne and I have been working together for a number of years as fellow superintendents of charter districts,” she said. “I think that I have a surface knowledge of Gainesville City, but there is nothing that compares to getting in and just really learning about what it is that makes the district operate, and what it is that makes each school unique.”
Creel didn’t necessarily set out to be a teacher, much less a superintendent. The first-generation college graduate attributes her career choice to her mother.
“I’m not sure that it was one of those things that I chose for myself,” she said, reflecting how career choices have changed for women over the years. When she was going through school — Creel graduated from Columbus State University in 1985 — she said it was a given that women would go into a few select fields, like teaching.
She had a ready answer for what she’d be doing if it weren’t for education.
“I oftentimes wonder if I had really stepped back and thought about what I would do,” she said. “I think I probably would have gone into architecture.
“But when I really think about it, they’re very similar,” she added, comparing education and architecture as two careers requiring groups of talented people coming together to build successfully.
“I think that, although initially it might not have been exactly the avenue, the path, that I would have chosen, I certainly feel like I am definitely where I am supposed to be.”
After graduating with degrees in music education and piano pedagogy, she first joined the Coweta County School System as choral director and music teacher at one of the middle schools; then she moved to Clayton County as choral director, again in a middle school. But three children came along — she took some time off the early 1990s to stay home with them.
But she kept teaching during that time, as a private voice and piano teacher.
“I enjoy all kinds of music,” Creel said. “My favorite types of music to sing are choral spirituals and gospels.”
After six years of giving private lessons, she then went back into the workforce, staying with the Coweta County School System for a number of years, moving from choral director at East Coweta High School to assistant principal at Madras Middle School in 1998. She then served as principal at Canongate Elementary beginning in 2001.
Her career with Coweta culminated in being director of elementary curriculum and instruction from 2003-05.
Creel received her doctorate in education from Samford University in 2004; shortly thereafter, she took a position with the Georgia Department of Education as director of the division of school improvement. She quickly moved up, named associate state superintendent of school improvement services from 2007-08.
Then there was a stint with the Houston County Board of Education as assistant superintendent; and then the 2010 move to Barrow County as the school system’s superintendent.
Now, she’s making the move to Gainesville. At the end of the day she still sees herself and her style of leadership as applicable to her first job position.
“I see my role now as really just being a choral director. I get to facilitate and direct, and bring large groups of people together to create a pretty harmonious working environment in order for other people to enjoy and grow and learn from.”
What comes through is her laser focus on both finding what makes people tick on an individual level, then bringing them together to work as a group. She has plans to make some procedures uniform across schools — not taking away the identity of each school, but rather making the transition to middle school easier for students from different elementary backgrounds.
Creel is also focused on opening the lines of communication between the school system and the families and citizens it serves.
“I do believe in being as transparent as we possibly can, and that means finding ways that our community really knows what we’re doing,” she said. To that end, a weekly e-newsletter should soon be in production.
From time to time, you may see Creel eating her lunch in the park.
“In the time that I’ve been coming for the last month, I don’t have lunch often but the few times that I’ve stopped for lunch, I’ve gone over to the little park and I’ve sat there and looked at the lake,” she said. “It’s just been great. So I’m hoping to really enjoy that.”
When not at work, she enjoys traveling and photography, a hobby she’s picked up over the past year. And, of course, music is one of the main loves of her life.
“If you see me riding around the city and I don’t notice you, please forgive me and know that I have the music blasting,” she said. “If I am not actually singing, my heart is.”
After years of focusing on her career and family, she’s ready to embrace Gainesville and all it has to offer as she tries to spend a little more time on herself. Plans are firming up for her to have moved permanently into the city by the end of this month. One of her priorities is finding a church to join.
“I’m hoping that I can find a little balance,” she said.
And in finding a spot in Gainesville, Creel said she truly believes she has found her home.
“I am honored, I am truly honored, that this board has selected me to come and be the superintendent for the Gainesville City School System,” she said. “I am humbled at the way that the leaders and other school staff members have embraced me in the time that I’ve been here.
“I’m becoming a part of this community,” she added. “I’m bringing my family with me. And the only thing that I ask in return is that people allow me to be an integral part of this community. ... I want very much to be a part of this community.”