“A good leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader; a great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves.” - Eleanor Roosevelt
Bruce Potts is the Principal of Sonoraville High School, but began his teaching career as a para-pro in Gordon Central high school's In-School Suspension program. Working as a para is a long way from school administration, but starting at that level allowed Bruce to learn about teaching and kids from the bottom up, and provided an experience and appreciation of the ground level, front line work teachers and paras do with students that other administrators may not have. His Principal was impressed with his success with those challenging students and assigned him to work with a group of at-risk 9th graders in a Physical Science class. This group’s behavior had led to the resignation of the teacher early in the school year and the subsequent refusal of 3 long term substitutes to return to that class. Bruce had no classroom experience, but was given the job. “If they won’t learn anything” said the Principal “at least take control of their behavior.” Bruce said “This was a great learning experience for me. I learned from the students, other teachers and administrators. I had to learn quickly what management techniques worked and which ones did not. This challenging environment shaped much of who I am as an educator today. I not only taught them the rest of the school year, they actually learned enough Physical Science to pass the class.”
As a high school student, Bruce was interested in a career in parks and recreation. His counselor warned him that jobs in that field were few and far between, and that if he were interested in helping young people perhaps a career in coaching would be more suitable. He took that advice and graduated with a degree in physical education. Mike Stanton, former Gordon County Superintendent, urged the young coach to move into school administration. “He shared with me the influence of an administrator compared to the influence of a coach, and opened my eyes to the fact that our realm of influence increases as we lead a school in a positive direction. He showed me that as an instructional leader the interest and needs of the learner, instructors and climate of the school must be priority number one. I also learned from the three Principals I served under that no problem is too difficult, that my job is to provide solutions and that I refuse to be outworked. I also learned that to be a catalyst for positive change a true leader must have a servant’s heart.”
Gordon County in northwest Georgia is named for William Washington Gordon, the first Georgian to graduate from West Point Military Academy and later the first president of the Central Georgia Railroad. The county also has the dubious distinction of being the beginning of the “Trail of Tears”, the point where the US Army, in 1838, rounded up 15,000 remaining Cherokee Indians and forced them to march over 1,000 miles to relocate in Indian Territory in Oklahoma.
Sonoraville, seven miles southeast of Calhoun, is an unincorporated community just off the edge of the Chattahoochee National Forest in the mountains of north Georgia. The high school was built in 2005 and opened in that year with students in grades 9 and 10. Two years later, as those initial students moved up, grades 11 and 12 were added. The school mascot is the Phoenix, the colors are red and black and Bruce Potts became the second Principal of SHS in 2006. As the school population grew, it meant that Bruce and his leadership team were responsible for hiring the majority of the teachers and support staff that serve the students of SHS and for growing the positive culture of the school from the ground up. The high school is part of the Gordon County School District, recently named as a Ford Next Generation Learning Community. Ford NGL schools work with local businesses and civic leaders to provide emphasis on college and career educational opportunities for students, including engineering, healthcare, technology and marketing. One of 19 Ford NGL communities nationwide, Gordon County earned inclusion through higher graduation rates, increased academic achievement, lower dropout rates and industry certifications in high school vocational programs.
SHS serves grades 8 through 12 and has 1300 students. There are 8 buildings on the campus, 102 staff members including teachers, cafeteria staff and custodians and FRL is about 53%. “The actual numbers are higher” Bruce says “because high school kids don’t always turn in paperwork. In reality we have about 63% of our students that should be on FRL.” Around 96% of the students at the school are white and a little under 3% Black or Latino. About 1% are American Indian or listed as “other.” Bruce believes in the power of students and public education to connect and engage the community in all aspects of his school. Athletics, Fine Arts and CTAE courses are all supported by stakeholders in the community. “We expect our students” he noted, “to be involved in the neighborhoods and small towns that make up our service area. Our teachers expect students to be a part of ideas and programs that help our community in a variety of ways. Our citizens see that involvement and see the lessons we are trying to teach. Our school is a vital part of our community in thousands of interconnected ways.” The SHS cohort graduation rate for 2013-14 was 88.7%.
Kerry Davis is the Math Instructional Coach (Department Chair) at SHS, and an original member of the faculty. “Mr. Potts knows that the school cannot grow if the concerns are only within the building and limited to the school day” she noted. “He has empowered students and teachers to take ownership and pride in their school. He insists department leaders sit in on interviews for new teachers, remains calm even in difficult situations, keeps lines of communication open for all stakeholders, doesn’t get rattled and advocates for what is best for students...not most popular or in demand, but best for students. He knows his students, knows his staff and attempts to have a positive relationship with all he encounters. He is a man of influence. Period.” Gordon County Superintendent Dr. Susan Remillard agrees; “when anyone in Gordon County thinks of Bruce Potts, they think of the strong school culture and a sense of community he has built at Sonoraville HS. He epitomizes the tagline of Gordon County Schools - “Into the Future with the Wisdom of the Past.” He knows how to build relationships with his community, and that carries over into his school with his teachers and his students.”
Bruce uses an inclusive approach in curricular decisions and especially when hiring new teachers and staff. “We’re looking for someone to be a part of the school and not just teach” he noted, “and we work as a team in the hiring process. Teachers and administrators are part of the selection committee, and we look specifically for teachers that can integrate technology into daily instruction, are willing to collaborate with other teachers and can effectively share best practices. We don’t want anyone that won’t share what works with other teachers.” He also mentioned that flexibility was an important consideration when considering candidates. “We want well-rounded teachers at all levels. We don’t want just one person teaching gifted kids or one person that only does honors or AP classes...we want those classes spread among the entire department. We also want to make sure our 9th grade teachers are not always the new teachers. Our goal is to have the candidate fit into the department, because we are a team and not pockets of isolated teachers that only come out between classes.” “Others have noticed our successes” said Bruce, “and we get visitors regularly from other schools and other districts. It’s not only an affirmation for our teachers when that happens. We love the opportunity to tell our story, share our journey and let others know that our path can be replicated. What we do is not easy and requires constant monitoring, but by allowing teachers to be leaders and to share their successes with each other we can not only improve the education our students receive but restore much of the joy that has been missing from teaching over the past several years. The process works, and we live it every day.”
Teacher evaluation is an everyday concern for every Principal, and Bruce is no exception. “I like the TKES instrument” he said, “and the ability to gather evidence and offer immediate feedback is powerful. I would like to see the design qualities added to the mix, however, and offer an adjustment to the evaluative process that would give teachers the opportunity to create and design engaging student work. The form does need additional tweaking. A solid teacher with proficient ratings doesn’t need the same amount of observation and evaluation as a new teacher or one not yet skilled in their art.” Ms. Davis also observed “our teachers trust his judgement. He doesn’t talk down to teachers, doesn’t claim to have all the answers, isn’t afraid to ask advice and isn’t afraid to make hard decisions. He is a big picture guy, gives teachers responsibility, delegates authority and shares successes. He is a leader that both expects and allows teachers to teach not only students but each other.”
The Common Core Standards are not high on Mr. Pott’s list of wonderful educational improvements, but he did note that changing the standards again might demoralize teachers even more than keeping them. “They’re not great” he said, “and some of them are not age appropriate, but changing every two or three years does not help teachers or students.” He also noted he would love the opportunity to sit down and talk with Arne Duncan or Governor Deal. “I would like for them to walk a mile in our shoes. I would love for one of them to serve as an Assistant Principal for a week...especially Homecoming Week! The 14-18 hour days alone would give them a little insight into what happens in schools, and might make them appreciate what we do a little more.” Bruce also suggests that the Governor or Secretary of Education might surround themselves with people who have taught in public schools and have experience. “Too many times they appoint folks that do not relate to or understand what we do on a daily basis. They are offering advice on something they only read about and have not experienced. It’s like the difference in talking about painting a portrait and actually painting one. They need to trust the people trained for this work and allow us to share with them the benefit of our experience and skills. I never see politicians mandating the Shaw or Mohawk factories in our area increase production to a given level, yet they think nothing of mandating educational achievement for every student regardless of family history, poverty, learning disabilities, parental supervision, hunger, fear or IQ. They need to take away the factory mentality for kids. They are all different, all have their special needs or skills or weaknesses and a one size fits all approach is not only foolish but counterproductive.” He was also insistent that critics of public education not constantly refer to “the good old days.” “In the not too distant past we had separate but equal, no resources for students with disabilities, no breakfast or lunch program and no help for English Language Learners. Only 18 years ago the dropout rate in Gordon County was 56%. If you talk about the good old days, begin the conversation with how we kicked out the kids that couldn’t or wouldn’t conform before you tell me how wonderful education used to be.”
Sonoraville was one of the original participants in the High School Redesign Initiative sponsored by the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. The program is part of a PAGE effort to improve teaching and learning in Georgia schools by improving student engagement. HSRI is provided to Georgia schools free of charge, and there is no requirement for membership in PAGE for participation. Ricky Clemmons has been the Director of the program since its inception in 2007. “I first met Bruce at a learning session for HSRI Principals in 2007. I was immediately struck by the level of his commitment and his intense desire to actively participate in the sessions. I was also impressed that he allowed teachers to really lead in his school. He is insistent that he and his teachers focus first and foremost on the needs of the students they serve. I often think of a quote that describes Bruce, his leadership and his passion for making sure his students and their educational needs come first:
“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” - John Quincy Adams
Mrs. Roosevelt and John Quincy Adams had someone like Bruce Potts in mind when they made those statements, and Sonoraville High School is proof of his success. His teachers get to see the human side of Mr. Potts every year at the Graduation ceremony. Kerry Davis explains; “he usually gets a standing ovation from the graduating Seniors and they present him with a gift. We stand on the side and watch and take bets on when the tears will begin...and they always do. That’s when the teachers add their applause to that of the students.”
Bravo, Bruce, Bravo.