The trip was arranged so that board members and other education officials, including Palo Alto education union leaders and parent volunteers, could learn more about the man whom the board has selected out of eight semi-finalists to potentially head the district.
McGee no longer works at IMSA; he left the prestigious public boarding school in 2013, citing personal and family reasons. On Thursday, though, he told the Weekly that he left to pursue his current position as head of school at the Princeton International School of Mathematics and Science, a small, private international boarding school in Princeton, New Jersey, that opened in September.
"You don't get the opportunity to run a startup every day," said McGee, who is 63. "You get to hire all your own people; you get complete control of the operation. When do you have the chance to make education what you really believe it ought to be?"
The Princeton venture is backed by a Chinese foundation, and its student body has equal numbers of Chinese and American students. McGee said the offer to head the school arose after research projects he coordinated between IMSA students and students and faculty in Beijing "got some attention in China."
He's built the school from the ground up, from hiring nine teachers to shoveling snow and taking students to the emergency room, he said.
"As some (IMSA) alumni will say: 'You'll love it; you'll hate it; it'll be 80 hours a week, but it is your baby,'" he said, referring to those who have gone on to found notable Silicon Valley companies.
"And I'm very, very proud of what we've done. Everybody has rallied behind this mission, and the kids have learned so much in such a short time."
He said this experience makes the possible move to Palo Alto a "really tough decision."
"This is a great opportunity in Palo Alto. It's a very, very difficult decision."
McGee has an extensive background in education at every level. He holds a doctorate in educational administration from the University of Chicago and a bachelor's degree from Dartmouth College in political science.
He served as Illinois state superintendent for three years, from 1998 to 2001. In August 2001, he announced he would not seek renewal of his current contract, which ended that December. A news article from the Daily Herald in Illinois said there had been speculation the board may have been considering firing him.
"At this point in my career, I believe that change needs to happen more rapidly, and in that vein I believe that the State Board would be better served by a new leader who can bring different experiences and skills to the table," he wrote in a letter announcing his retirement. "It has been frustrating not to give our agency and my employees the time and attention they need and deserve, and it has been frustrating trying to maintain the focus needed to excel while balancing far too numerous competing demands on my time."
During his tenure as state superintendent — during which he oversaw two million students in 900 school districts — new Illinois Learning Standards, much like the nation's new Common Core, were implemented; a new state assessment program was put into place; the first PSAE tests, a new exam that embeds the ACT test, were taken by 11th graders; and early childhood development and reading programs were in particular emphasized and supported, he said.
"Despite all the progress, despite all the accomplishments, more than 40 percent of Illinois students are not meeting the Learning Standards," the state board wrote in an announcement regarding McGee's retirement. "That is simply unacceptable in a world in which post-secondary education is becoming a requirement for all but the most menial of jobs. Equally unacceptable is the achievement gap among groups of students, a gap that finds many minority students and students from low-income families consistently achieving below their peers."
McGee also worked as superintendent for Wilmette Public Schools in Illinois from 2001 to 2007 and for at least two additional school districts prior to his work as state superintendent.
McGee told the Weekly that his time at Wilmette, a school district he characterized as similar to Palo Alto's in size and nature, would prepare him to serve as Palo Alto's superintendent in numerous ways. He mentioned a cyber-bullying incident that took place during his time there: A group of middle school boys were bullying a female special-education student, but outside of school. The boys were suspended, some for longer than others, he said.
"I think (bullying) needs to be dealt with immediately, decisively and then it needs to be communicated so that students and others know when we have this policy, to follow it," he said.
He said he's read Palo Alto's revised bullying prevention policy and was watching on broadcast TV when the school board tentatively approved it Tuesday night.
"I think it's a really thoughtful policy," he said.
McGee said that his main priorities for Palo Alto would be to encourage and maintain open, transparent communication and work on improving access and opportunities for the district's under-served students.
On Thursday, McGee led four board members, Associate Superintendent Charles Young and a group of Palo Alto education officials through the halls of IMSA, which is housed in a 1970s building retrofitted to fit its high-achieving students' needs.
During the tour, McGee greeted every single passerby by name, stopping to chat and catch up. McGee ran into senior Anthony Marquez, the school's current student council president, and introduced him to the Palo Alto entourage. McGee put his arm around Marquez, pointed to the Dartmouth sweatshirt he was wearing and said: "I'm so proud of you."
The incoming student council president, junior Vinesh Kannan, lit up when he saw McGee in the hallway, and also stopped to say hello.
An employee who also stopped to talk with McGee said: "This guy inspired me to be a teacher."
Branson Lawrence, the current principal, called McGee's hiring as president in 2007 "a big deal for IMSA," given as he was following on the heels of the school's founding president, whose personality was quieter.
"Max is bigger than life. He's very gregarious. People like to be around Max," said Lawrence, who's been at IMSA for 22 years, both as a teacher and an administrator. "It was a different atmosphere when Max came as far as the president's office went."
IMSA is a state-funded public school that enrolls 650 residential students, grades 10 through 12, who live in dorms on campus. Due to its public nature, tuition and room and board are free, though there is an annual student fee that can be reduced or waived based on family income. Though the majority of its funding comes from the state, the gaps are filled by private and corporate donors.
The school's main building is small but houses science labs, an art room, a library, classrooms with open ceilings and octagonal tables to facilitate open discussion and support the school's tagline, "inquiry-based learning."
IMSA's philosophy is to "learn by doing." Students sometimes lead classes; on Wednesdays, there are no classes, but students instead take the day to devote themselves to a year-long original research project. The majority of that research is done off site at institutions in the area like Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, the Illinois Institute of Technology as well as sites like Argonne National Laboratory, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Adler Planetarium, the Federal Reserve Bank, architectural firms and law firms.
Some students also complete their research projects on site in the Student Inquiry and Research (SIR) room, which is complete with multiple 3-D printers, among other graduate-research-level devices and tools.
IMSA was ranked 11th in the nation in schools with the highest SAT/ACT scores, according to a Niche survey published in Business Insider in January.
The elite college prep school has also turned out impressive alumni, many of which made their way to Silicon Valley: Steven Chen, co-founder and chief technology officer at YouTube; Yu Pan, one of the six co-creators of PayPal and YouTube's first employee; Russel Simmons, Yelp co-founder, among others.
The school also runs a number of outreach programs, expanding its scope beyond the small group of elite students who live and study there each year. Its two main initiatives are ALLIES, a service-learning program that helps local high school students teach and learn STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) concepts, and FUSION, an after-school STEM program that targets underserved elementary and middle school students with particular talent in mathematics and science. It also supports teachers' professional development, if they choose to participate. IMSA also opens its classrooms up during the summer with programs like green architecture, quantum culinary school and medieval engineering.
The school served an estimated 10,000 students and 1,000 teachers statewide last year through such programs, McGee said.
In spite of the fact that McGee met with the Palo Alto school board Thursday, board President Barbara Mitchell told the Weekly that the district wouldn't confirm until Friday, May 23, that McGee is the superintendent finalist.
Current Superintendent Kevin Skelly announced that he will resign as of June 30.