You can’t go much farther northeast in Georgia than Hart County without running into South Carolina. Hart County is the only county in Georgia named after a woman, and Nancy Hart was a legendary hero of the American Revolution. When British soldiers arrived at her cabin looking for her patriot husband, Nancy plied them with alcohol, stole their guns, shot one who resisted and, when her husband returned, insisted they be hanged as retribution for their intrusion on her cabin and family. Even though the incident did not occur in the area, Georgians were impressed enough with Nancy’s courage, tenacity and patriotic spirit to name the county after her. The county was created in 1853 by the Georgia Legislature, and Hartwell is the county seat. Lake Hartwell, also named after Nancy, occupies the center of the county and the city of Hartwell, the county seat, sits on its southern shore. The town and the county are in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, and are only 78 miles from Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia. The high school mascot, appropriately fitting the character of the county’s namesake, is the bulldog.
Kevin Gaines is Principal of HCHS, and believes strongly that his school is not just an integral part of the community but serves as a face of the community. He encourages staff members to get out into the surrounding area with students, their parents and business leaders and show them that school achievement is as much about the impact of the school in the community as in academic achievement within its walls. Teacher Noelle Reese explains “Mr. Gaines makes Hart County different from other schools. He is a Principal of principle, and a proactive leader. He is encouraging to teachers, students, parents and business leaders and believes that every student has a place in a club, activity or program. He understands the need for teachers to build relationships with students to give them the desire to work hard, remain focused and stay in school. He supports teachers, provides innovative technology in trying economic circumstances, encourages the community to support our work by fostering relationships with local industries, health care providers, entrepreneurs and technical colleges. Mr. Gaines is a man of integrity, faith and an advocate for all students of all abilities and is making HCHS an exceptional school through his work.” Meagan is a Senior at Hart County, and agrees wholeheartedly. “Mr. Gaines has expanded our AP program, created partnerships for dual enrollment opportunities, led the creation and growth of our STEM program and somehow finds the time to support students in athletics, the Good Dog Deed program, the Good Dog Incentive card program and other rewards programs for students and for teachers. One of my friends participates in dual enrollment with North Georgia Tech and is pursuing a degree in welding. I have had the opportunity to work with a lab at UGA to analyze samples of biodiesel fuel I made while working in an independent study research class Mr. Gaines made possible. He is a wonderful example for us all.”
Teacher Barbara Rousey also points out “our school is changing, and in a good way. I have been teaching at HCHS for 24 years and worked for 8 Principals. Mr. Gaines leads in all aspects of our school and in our community. He supports teacher efforts in academics, in our CTAE program, and our agriculture, business and technology students have never been so active and competed so well in so many areas as they do now. Over the last 2 years, the school and the community worked together to pass the ESPLOST referendum, secured a $2.2 million grant to fund construction of our College and Career Academy and partnered with Athens Technical College to provide an early start for students in their career pathways. Mr. Gaines has led the efforts from our school from being just a rural school towards becoming a rural school with global ideas. Students bring their own technology to classes and he has untied teachers and students in ways I used to think were not possible.” Senior Raeanna agrees. “This high school has played a tremendous role in my growth, and has offered so many opportunities and paths that have been more than a blessing. The school is set up to help students in and out of school. The Business Ed teachers have been a huge help in preparing our juniors and seniors for college. Mr. Gaines was recognized as the Administrator of the Year by the Technology Student Association. He makes sure the students are pushed and supported throughout the school, and continues to make our school strong and maintain a high standard for all.”
Hart County HS serves grades 9-12 and has 951 students. There are 63 teachers and 32 staff members. The student population is 67% white, 25% black, 4% Hispanic and 51.5% of the student receive Free or Reduced Price lunches. “We are definitely a rural community” Kevin noted, “but almost everyone in the community and the school has responded positively to the changes we have worked hard to implement. We look hard for ways to improve while making sure the successes are celebrated. I’ve never heard anyone here say ‘I guess that’s the best we can do.’ The attitude and commitment of everyone involved is impressive. I do get impatient sometimes when things don’t change as quickly as I would like, but I remind myself that education is a marathon and not a 400 meter dash.” Kevin began his personal marathon by graduated from Hartwell County High School in 1996, earned a degree in Mathematics Education from Georgia Southern, a Masters in Educational Administration from Clemson and an Ed.S from Lincoln Memorial University. He taught math for 2 years at Metter High, 7 years at Banks County High, was AP at Stephens County High for 3 years and returned home to Hart County High School as Principal in 2012.
Kevin feels he has been blessed with a great faculty and staff that puts students first. “We can’t be successful without great teachers, and “it seems they all want to be that teacher that makes a difference in the life of a student just like a great teacher did for them when they were growing up.” He looks for happy people when hiring new teachers. “Nothing can kill a positive school climate quicker than a negative person. I am looking for teachers that are open to new ideas and even on bad days can find something positive to say.” He has impressed on his faculty the belief that “an incident is 10% action and 90% your reaction. We want our leaders to think things through before responding in a negative manner. I try to do the same.” Noelle Reese noted that he is making a difference. “Mr. Gaines is a man of few words, but when he does speak it is precise and encouraging. He also trusts teachers to do their jobs. He makes Hart County a different place and an exception to the rule.”
Mr. Gaines likes the TKES evaluation instrument for teachers. “It’s a good tool for education and for educators as far as the 10 standards it addresses” he said, “but my concern is the amount of time required for administrators to do all the observations. Some teachers need more help than others, and the drawback of TKES is that the same number of observations and the same amount of time must be spent on every teacher.” He offered this advice for political leaders making educational decisions; “Listen to those in the trenches. Many times those making decisions on our future are not educators. Education should be about what’s best for students of our state and nation and not about what a particular political party or lobby wants.” His thoughts on the Common Core standards mirror that belief. “There are pros and cons about the standards, but things change so often and so quickly we don’t really have time to measure its effectiveness before it changes. Let’s stay the course on something for a while before we change to something else.” He also suggests again that people making decisions about education listen more to teachers. “When I have a question about an issue or an idea, I talk to other Principals. Mark Wilson, 2009 NASSP Principal of the Year is at the top of that list. Mark has had a tremendous influence on my career as an administrator. I am a better leader because of the advice I get from him. If I have a car problem I talk to a mechanic. If there is a medical issue I talk to a doctor. If I want insurance advice I call my insurance agent. Why don’t our leaders include teachers in the discussions and decisions about education?”
Senior Meagan summed up the influence Mr. Gaines has had on Hart County students; “He sets the tone for a culture that encourages a close-knit family feel in our small town rural school. I watch administrators, teachers and students led by Mr. Gaines’ example give generously of their time and efforts to those in need, not just on a few occasions but many. What we are learning at HCHS offers a balance of skills we need in everyday life as well as extraordinary opportunities. Habitudes, a program started by Mr. Gaines, are short life lesson sessions conducted by our teachers. There is a different theme each week, and the lessons make us think about how we react to each other and to situations and how we can change our behavior to make our world a better place for all of us.”
Teaching these life lessons is just as important to student success as academic achievement. Kevin Gaines, by changing the culture of his school and his community in positive ways, is indeed making a difference in Hart County for students, teachers and the surrounding area. Nancy Hart would have approved.