Lakewood School District Superintendent Michael Mack is leaving to head the International Schools Group in Saudi Arabia. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Lakewood School District Superintendent Michael Mack is leaving to head the International Schools Group in Saudi Arabia. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Lakewood schools leader tells why he’s going to Saudi Arabia

His focus is kids, not politics. “I view my role as kind of a statesman,” says the superintendent.

When the Lakewood School District announced this week that its superintendent was retiring, and that his next post would be leading the International Schools Group in Saudi Arabia, Michael Mack heard one question multiple times: Why?

More specifically, why Saudi Arabia?

The answer is perhaps rooted in past experience.

Mack, 60, had been Stanwood Middle School’s principal when he left in 2004, with his wife Jeanne and three children, to become superintendent at the International School of Latvia. They spent four years in Riga, Latvia, a place they first became interested in because of one person.

In Lakewood, their children’s kindergarten teacher had been Latvian, Mack said Wednesday. It’s an example of how one teacher, by offering a glimpse of another culture, can open doors to the world.

“It was just a wonderful experience,” Mack said of their time in Latvia, a former Soviet republic on the Baltic Sea.

They became a family of travelers. Mack said their three kids once spent Christmas in Egypt. They’ve been to Soweto, in South Africa, and to what was once the Nazis’ Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.

Their children are grown now — the eldest will soon graduate from the University of Washington School of Medicine. Mack’s wife Jeanne, who’s been a second-grade teacher in the Marysville and Lakewood districts, will go with him to Saudi Arabia and may teach there.

The Lakewood leader will leave in August to be superintendent of the not-for-profit International Schools Group. Formerly Saudi Arabian International Schools, it was founded in 1962 to serve expatriate families in Saudia Arabia. The International Schools Group operates six coeducational schools in four locations, with students in preschool through 12th grade. American, British or International curricula are offered.

Most students in the academically strong schools have parents working at embassies or oil companies. The school’s current leader is British, Mack said, and a U.S. Embassy employee is always on the school’s board.

Mack, who’ll be based in Dhahran, certainly knows that Saudi Arabia is an ultraconservative Muslim country — a world away in faith, culture and government from Lakewood, or from Latvia which is largely Orthodox Christian, Catholic and Lutheran.

Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam, described by Mack as “the dominant force in the Muslim world.” Some of the kingdom’s strict rules have been moderated — women may now drive — and the government has a plan to attract millions more visitors by 2030.

As of Feb. 21, the U.S. State Department lists a “Level 2” travel advisory, warning Americans to “exercise increased caution in Saudi Arabia due to terrorism and the threat of missile and drone attacks on civilian targets.”

Visitors should also heed laws and cultural norms. Covered clothing is a must, alcohol is illegal, gay rights are not recognized, and speaking out against the royal family can mean serious trouble.

Mack said his decision to work in Saudi Arabia has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with students. Already having spent 36 years in education, the last 11 years in Lakewood, he wants to work with international kids again.

“I view my role as kind of a statesman,” he said.

He described his aims simply, to “like each other, respect each other, and make a better world,” adding that today’s students are “the best hope for every nationality, every country.”

One of 13 children raised in a Catholic family in Kirkland, Mack has a bachelor’s degree in industrial arts education from Western Washington University. He earned a master’s in school counseling from Seattle University, his principal’s certification from Seattle Pacific University, and a doctorate in educational leadership and his superintendent certificate from Washington State University.

Mack said his earnings in Saudi Arabia will be similar to what he’s paid in Lakewood. His contract is for three years. With his own children raised and one young grandson, Mack sees the move as now-or-never. He decided he’d “only regret not going.”

They’ll live on the school’s campus, close to the U.S. Consulate in Dhahran. It’s where Standard Oil first struck oil decades ago, he said. A runner, Mack believes heat will be the toughest hardship. It was 110 degrees when he went running one morning last October in Saudi Arabia.

Just as he’d respect someone’s home as a visitor, Mack said he intends to be a “respectful American” who’ll abide by Saudi Arabia’s laws.

Returning to that question of why, Mack brings the answer back to what he knows best — kids and their education — and how “getting along is better than not.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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