Head of school says goodbye to Gulf Stream School,
where he took pride in caring, listening
ABOVE: Joe Zaluski, in a hat borrowed from a kindergarten student, congratulates Amelia Grandic and her classmates on a job well done after they talked in 2018 about what they want to be when they grow up. BELOW: Zaluski greets students the first day of classes this past year. Kristen Zankl snaps a photo of him with her kids Alexa and Trevor. Photos by Rachel S. O’Hara/Gulf Stream School and Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
By Rich Pollack
The aging rocking chair in Joe Zaluski’s office says much about the man whose 14 years as the leader of Gulf Stream School will soon draw to a close.
The office has a desk in it with chairs on both sides, but Zaluski is quick to invite visitors to take a seat facing him as he settles into the rocker.
“It gets me out from behind a desk,” he said. “It gives us a chance to focus on each other.”
Since taking the reins as head of school in 2005, Zaluski has had to focus on a lot of things, from building enrollment and funding to improving facilities, while also working closely with the school’s board of trustees and parents to implement projects they have deemed necessary.
His primary focus, however, has been guiding students and faculty and challenging them to do better for themselves and the school. That and his talent for listening will probably be his greatest legacy.
For Zaluski, 66, a long-planned retirement will mean an opportunity to return to Ohio with his wife, Sally, and be close to their children and grandchild.
For the school, the changing of the guard is a chance to welcome the new head of school, Dr. Gray Smith. He — like Zaluski did — will bring in new ideas and approaches when he takes the job in July.
Zaluski’s leadership and dedication to those who learned from him will certainly be missed.
“It is the end of an era,” says Hilary Lynch, a former Gulf Stream student who later served as president of the board of trustees.
It is easy to list the tangibles that will be part of the Zaluski era when that chapter in the history of Gulf Stream School is written.
Financially, the school has remained strong. The endowment quadrupled since his arrival, while donations to the school’s annual fund are reaching new levels, including 100 percent parental participation at one point.
“People donated because of Joe,” Lynch said of a man students and parents alike call Mr. Z. “They saw his strength in leadership.”
Enrollment stayed strong, even during the recession, with attrition low compared with that of other independent schools.
ABOVE: As he did every day, Zaluski greets students as they arrive in mid-May. He did the same when they departed. BELOW: Zaluski (in red) oversaw the 2016 revamping of the playground, an important facility improvement during his tenure.
Improvements during tenure
Zaluski is credited with raising the school’s profile, so that Gulf Stream School became better known and better able to cast a wider net when trying to attract students.
Facilities during Zaluski’s tenure underwent improvements, with renovations to every classroom and the construction of a new pavilion with three classrooms above it. All were funded through a major capital campaign.
There was also construction of a new playground, a project led by the school’s Parent Auxiliary.
Zaluski enhanced the out-of-school experiences for middle school students. Students in eighth grade go to the Grand Canyon every April, and they go to Canada every other year with seventh-grade students.
On alternating years, seventh- and eighth-grade students take a trip to Homosassa Springs, where they swim with manatees. Seventh-graders also go to the Everglades and sixth-graders visit St. Augustine in May.
Even with all of that, Zaluski may be remembered more for his intangible impact on students — in part because of his love of reading but also because of the time he took to listen.
“Every person who met Joe, as well as students, felt that they had a personal connection with him,” said Bettina Young, whose children went to the school and whose husband served as president of the board of trustees prior to Lynch’s years in the position. “He wanted people to know ‘I’m here, I’m listening, come speak with me.’ ”
Young tells this story to illustrate the point:
It was 2005, Zaluski had just arrived and there was no furniture in his office yet. Young and three of her children came to say hello. Zaluski invited them all to sit on the floor with him “crisscross-applesauce” style and asked the children about their interests.
“Joe sees the humanity in children,” Young said. “He understands that there are differences and he listens.”
While students know they can come to speak with their headmaster, they also never forget his role.
“That’s what’s magical about him,” Young said. “The children feel the closeness, but they still have respect for him.”
His understanding of children has been a plus for Zaluski, who says the school’s role is not just to teach students fundamentals but to develop character.
He believes that the school should be a safe place for students, not just from physical danger — although he has led recent efforts to secure the campus — but from emotional challenges that could be as basic as an argument with a parent or a sibling.
“These are still kids, they’re still thinking, and they still have internal conflicts,” he said. “A child needs to know ‘I can come to school and know that I’m going to be greeted by people who love me, care about me and want to help me succeed academically and emotionally and accept me for who I am.’ ”
ABOVE: A proponent of combining fun with learning, Zaluski plays the superhero Captain Pajamas while taking part in the annual Halloween parade. BELOW LEFT: Zaluski smiles as pre-kindergarten student Michael Bonutti pulls out a raffle ticket at an assembly program during the 2017-18 school year. BELOW RIGHT: Zaluski stands among students for a photo that commemorated the 75th anniversary of Gulf Stream School during the 2013-14 school year.
Though he had the responsibilities for running a prestigious school — a full-time job — Zaluski still took time to teach two sixth-grade reading classes every week.
“Reading is the most valuable skill for success,” he said. “I want the students to be lifelong learners.”
He’ll tell you that during 14 years at the school, he learned a lot from the students and the faculty. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t learn something new.”
He shared much of what he learned with teachers and other staff members, who advanced professionally thanks to his coaching as well as from programs that help pay for additional education.
“It’s been a pleasure to work with the teachers I’ve worked with for 14 years,” he said.
He says he gets back more than he gives. “If I’ve been a role model for teachers and students, I can honestly say they have been a role model for me,” he said.
When it comes to students, Zaluski’s interaction began with welcoming them at the front of the school every morning, shaking hands on occasion and saying hello to parents as well.
“It sets the tone for the day, that the head of school is out here greeting you,” said teacher Bridget Langford. “It says he cares.”
Legacy of caring
Zaluski is quick to point out that many of the traditions and the culture of caring for which Gulf Stream School is known were in place when he arrived, thanks in part to his predecessor Anne Gibb. Yet those who know him well say he has been a careful custodian of the culture, nurturing it and adding a few touches of his own. Among faculty and staff, there is no doubt that Zaluski truly cares about them and their success.
“Joe will undoubtedly be remembered as an unwavering advocate and mentor for the Gulf Stream School students and faculty,” said Casey Wilson, director of alumni development and a former student who now works closely with the head of school. “His commitment to our personal and professional growth will be a major part of the Zaluski legacy.”
Zaluski says he will miss Gulf Stream School but that the time has come for his wife and him to be back home and close to family. He leaves with few regrets, saying only that there is always room for improvement in whatever profession someone chooses.
“I’m very fortunate to have been here for 14 years and to be able to end my career here,” he said.
ABOVE: The pink cottage is all that remains of the private school’s original structures as head of school Joe Zaluski retires.
A manicured field on the east side of the campus handles sports like lacrosse and soccer, daily recess and special events. The school was built on the former grounds of Gulf Stream Polo. LEFT: Second-grader Cali Greenhalgh gives Zaluski a hug in May as she makes her way to class at the start of the day.
Gulf Stream School
Grades: Pre-kindergarten (starting at age 3) through grade eight
Tuition: Ranges from $18,225 to $26,280 per school year
Enrollment: Maximum of 250 students
Heads of school in 81 years: Eight
Parents of current students who attended the school: 10
Faculty members who attended the school: Five