They come from different parts of the country and worked in separate school districts last year.
But both Mark Gudger and Barbara Pixton bring extensive backgrounds in special education to their new administrative roles at Orchard Heights Elementary School. And it’s not a coincidence.
New principal Gudger said that is because the school houses several of the South Kitsap School District’s special-needs programs.
He estimated that 26 percent of the school’s students are enrolled in those programs.
“The person that’s running it should know what special ed looks like,” he said.
Gudger succeeds Nancy Pack, who retired after six years at Orchard Heights. Pack also had a background in special education and worked with both Gudger and Pixton, the school’s new assistant principal.
Pixton earned her special education credentials while working under Pack.
Beyond those similarities, Gudger and Pixton took different routes toward education. Gudger, a 1993 South Kitsap High School graduate, was the son of a pair of educators and had other teachers in his family.
“It was kind of always in my mind,” he said. “I wanted to give back and I love working with kids. It was just kind of in my DNA.”
Gudger pursued that path first at Olympic College and then at Central Washington University, where he obtained his certification in both elementary and special education.
He then taught in Yakima and Seattle before returning to SKSD in 2003 at Mullenix Ridge. In 2010, he became the librarian at Cedar Heights Junior High, where he helped modernize a cluttered and dated library through a series of projects that included new monitors and computer tables.
While Gudger has worked in education for his entire career, Pixton served 23 years in the Navy.
The Canton, Ohio, native worked in classified communications.
“It’s one of those that if I tell you, I’ve got to kill you,” she said with a laugh.
Pixton volunteered at Poulsbo Elementary, where her children attended, and told the staff there that she planned to return as a teacher upon her retirement from the Navy.
After earning her teaching certification from Pacific Lutheran University, Pixton taught third through fifth grade there before she moving to another North Kitsap elementary school, Vinland, as an instructional specialist.
She later returned to Poulsbo to serve as a teacher and dean of students.
In June, Pixton was honored along with North Kitsap High School teacher Peggy Dunbar as the Rangvald Kvelstad Teachers of the Year, which are based on nominations from the community.
One of Pixton’s nominations came from Jan Hellenga, an intensive support para-educator.
“Mrs. Pixton’s special teaching techniques grow from her honest respect for her students,” she wrote in her nomination.
“She builds a ‘safety net’ that helps a student want to be there.”
Both Gudger and Pixton applied to succeed Pack. Despite that, both said they are comfortable working together. Gudger said he considers himself and Pixton as “like-minded” administrators and feels like they have worked together for years.
Regardless, both agreed that discord has no place in education because children are the focus.
“As administrators, we make decisions all of the time,” Gudger said.
“I really think that if you have that lens of, ‘How is this going to affect the kids?’ Because why are we here? We’re here for the kids.”
Gudger, who served as an interim assistant principal at Orchard Heights in the spring, is excited about his new challenge.
He credits Cedar Heights principal Andrew Cain for recommending that he pursue an administrative role.
“I really enjoy working with the whole school — not just part of a school,” Gudger said.
“I get to work with the community, I get to work with the teachers and I still have my hands in the library.”
Both administrators also will oversee Orchard Heights’ drive to become an International Baccalaureate school.
“As kids graduate from school, they’re going to be competing internationally,” Gudger said, adding that he believes the IB program helps prepare students for that.
“The heart of it is teaching inquiry; teaching kids large concepts and then giving them the freedom to be able to research and become lifelong learners.”