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Building Administrators Making a Difference in Public Education in Georgia - Bruce Potts

“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.


Are We There Yet?

Are We There Yet?

   I will admit that I was more than a little skeptical when I learned about the group appointed by Governor Deal to investigate the possibility of updating the decades old formula used to fund education in Georgia.  It wasn’t necessarily the membership that made me suspicious, but the motives behind such an effort.  Governor Deal has shown himself on more than one occasion to be a supporter of the privatization of public education, one who believes that charter schools will provide a magical answer to the effects of poverty on learning and one that believes public schools and public school teachers must be the both the problem and the enemy because every student in public education does not succeed at high educational levels.  Career politicians like the Governor seem to have developed a sincere belief that quick fixes and silver bullets will solve educational issues and that if only teachers could once again do more and more with less and less they could overcome the problems created by poverty, society, single parent homes, hunger, unemployment, the economy and rural isolation.  The real reason behind the “study” became evident last week when Erin Hames, who oversees education policy for Governor Deal, said that if the group doesn’t recommend doing away with paying teachers for training and experience, then “I’m not sure that we’re going to change anything about the way business is done.” She also said research is “pretty clear” that teachers with advanced degrees do no better in the classroom.
    I was surprised to hear that.  Not surprised to hear about the desire to find what amounts to a gigantic teacher pay cut but to discover that research, however deceptive, played a part in any educational decisions made politically in Georgia.  On the face of things, it would seem that experience and advanced academic study in almost any profession you might name would be desirable for employees and those that employ them. Quick - make a decision - you have a choice between 3rd grade teachers for your child.  You can have the new one fresh out of college or you can have the one that’s been teaching for 12 years and that your neighbor’s kid loved.  Would you choose the new one still finding her way through the maze of new teacher mania and discovering what does and what does not work through trial and error, or the one with a clear idea of what she expects, how she handles behavioral issues, how she assesses students and their progress and her network of professional contacts to help her solve any problems or issues that might arise?  Seems like an easy one to answer, doesn’t it?  For that matter, how many politicians cite their own political experience as an enticement to voters for re-election?  I haven’t seen much research on whether or not it makes them more effective politicians but incumbency does seem to have it’s own set of political privileges.  Surely teaching experience and advanced education counts for something?
    The research in question does indeed state that teacher training, including in-service training, undergraduate training and advanced degrees, play little or no part in improving student achievement as measured by standardized achievement tests.  Value added statistical models also show that teacher training and experience have little or no effect on student achievement scores on standardized tests, so on the face of things it might be reasonable to assume that experience and educational attainment make little difference in student learning.  Looking further, however, shows us extensive additional research indicates that even the most effective teachers account for only 1- 15% of student improvement on standardized tests in any given school year.  There are additional issues with the assumptions that student learning is accurately measured by standardized testing and that 8 hours of teaching can overcome the influences of life, society, parents, poverty or television for the other 16 hours.   Over a week’s time, for example, students spend about 40 hours at school and about 80 hours at home or other places not counting weekends.  Over the course of a 9 month school year (assuming there are no furlough days in effect) that would mean 1440 hours in school and around 2880 hours at home, again not counting weekends.  That is a rather large chunk of student time that teachers don’t have to teach that hasn’t really been part of the responsibility discussion.
“The research consensus has been clear and unchanging for more than a decade: at most, teaching accounts for about 15 percent of student achievement outcomes, while socioeconomic factors account for about 60 percent.”

   I also think most teachers would agree that the vast majority of in-service training they attend is a waste of time.  It is invariably presented, with few exceptions, using methodology that would result, when observed over time by an administrator, in the non-renewal of a beginning teacher’s contract.  Many administrators and professional in-service providers seem to have overlooked the somewhat obvious fact that group lectures and death by powerpoint are not only ineffective in the classroom with students but with captive audiences of teachers.  I overheard one veteran teacher say that she hoped that when her time came to die it would be during an in-service presentation because the transition from life to death would be so subtle as to hardly be noticeable.  
    Advanced degrees for teachers also seem to have little effect on student scores on standardized tests.  I would suggest that this is just another indicator that what those tests measure is not student learning but test taking strategies.  Teachers and administrators would never make the mistake of believed that authentic student learning is measured by standardized testing.  Neither should you.'t-Measure-Educational-Quality.aspx
    What does, however, invariably affect student standardized test scores is the economic status of the parents.  Studies again and have serve to point out that students from more affluent families score higher at every grade level and with every imaginable test than students from families struggling in poverty.  Conversely, research has also shown that the only accurate predictor of student success in college are the grades provided by high school teachers.
Think that over for a moment.  Not the SAT, not the ACT, not the EOCT, not the CRCT, not the Georgia Milestones…not even Pearson... teacher grades that students earn in high school.  So it would seem, in spite of the “blame teachers for everything wrong” movement that the vast majority of teachers do conscientiously administer grades and employ defendable grading methods.  Just as there are some politicians that don’t follow ethics rules and some policemen that don’t follow departmental procedures and some doctors that practice illegally and some lawyers that end up getting disbarred, some teachers and some administrators are the exception to the effective grading continuum.  For the grades to be valid predictors, as research suggests, the vast majority of teachers must follow sound methodology and grading practices in their classrooms.  Teachers and administrators know that if you are basing your evaluation of teachers, teaching and learning and public education on standardized test scores then you are measuring the wrong thing with the wrong instrument.  As my mother used to say, you have the ac - cent’ on the wrong sy - la’ - ble.
    Georgia’s reformy leaders continue to ignore this research because it doesn’t fit in with their goals to allow more and more public money to be used to pay for private education and for private gain.  It’s pretty inconvenient for their cause so it usually just ignored.  They use research only when it can support the implementation of policies that increase the amount of public tax monies available to testing companies, charter schools and the private investors that support them.  
    Georgia doesn’t spend much on individual teachers.  The base salary for a beginning teacher is $33,473 annually and a little under $2,800 per month.  The education budget for 2015 includes a total amount of $3,474,099,349 for T and E (training and experience) raises statewide.   Teachers may earn incremental increases every few years for experience and may also earn increases for advanced degrees, as long as those degrees are in their field of teaching assignment.  Without the raises for experience and advanced degrees, it would be safe to assume that a teacher with X years of experience might still be earning the same amount as a beginning teacher.  It would also seem the removal of those incremental increases would serve to make teaching even less attractive than it already is.  Like the failed effort to change teacher participation in the Teacher Retirement System in SB 152, the sole purpose of removing T and E from the state education budget would be to discourage experienced teachers from remaining in the profession and to further discourage recruitment of college students to teaching, unless perhaps redirecting the money used for T and E from the education budget would be just about enough to fund an Opportunity School District.  Such an idea might make the idea of a constitutional change more palatable to Georgia voters...except maybe for teachers.’s not an election year, the Governor reduced the austerity cut to education and called it a raise, the State will pay for insurance for part time Legislators but costs for cafeteria workers and bus drivers have been passed on to local boards...who needs those pesky teachers this year anyway?
    Governor Deal recently announced 10% raises for much of his staff.  These raises come in addition to the performance review incentives, bonuses and other added income for key members of his staff.  The Governor failed to mention any research citations that supported the necessity of his decision to increase staff salaries, but did say “they could all make higher salaries in the private sector.”  So if I am following the Governor’s logic here, it’s necessary for him to keep his staff from going to other positions by raising their salaries but it’s OK to cut teacher salaries and expect them to keep working at their jobs without any hope for an incremental raise that doesn’t even approach the 10% given his staff.  Curious logic, but here again, it’s not an election year.
    The research often cited by reformy- minded politicians is often research of convenience to support their anti-public education sentiments.  Even as the study of the New Orleans Recovery School District touting wonderful progress and academic gains was labeled as “inaccurate” by the executive director of the Cowen Institute John Ayers and withdrawn, the Governor went ahead with his “Opportunity School District” plan for Georgia based on that same information.  
    If the Governor were really interested in improving public education in Georgia, perhaps his model could have included schools in Finland rather than those in New Orleans.  Rather than measuring success with standardized test scores, VAM and “no excuses” models that ignore the causes and effects of poverty on student learning, he could focus on the things that help teachers make a difference in teaching and learning; cooperation, commitment and a positive school culture.  There are places like that in Georgia, if only he would look.  There are models to follow if only it weren’t so inconvenient.  There are educational leaders to listen to if you don’t mind hearing that the reforms you are proposing are a waste of time and money and won’t help students in rural or urban locations.  There are ways to improve educational outcomes and educational opportunities if you care to measure the right things, and read more than just the educational research that fits a plan to privatize public education.  Yogi Berra seemed to have Georgia politics and education in mind when he said “If you don’t know where you are going you might not get there.” Research can tell us that, too.


Building Administrators Making a Difference for Public Education in Georgia - Kevin Gaines

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.


The Wolves Are Out of the Closet

The Wolves Are Out of the Closet

SB 152 is sponsored by Hunter Hill (R-Atlanta), Francis Millar (R-Atlanta) and Curt Thompson (D-Tucker).  It creates a hybrid retirement system named “Georgia Teachers Pension and Savings Plan” and is written to cover new teachers on or after January 1, 2017.  Teachers currently covered under TRS may remain in TRS as long as they maintain active membership.  Current TRS members have the option of enrolling in the new plan.  This sounds a lot like “if you like your plan, you can keep your plan” doesn’t it?

The new defined benefit plan allows members to contribute between 5 and 6% of their salary, and they will receive 1% of their highest average monthly salary multiplied by their years of service.  The current benefit is 2%.  No cost of living adjustments for contributors will be pre-funded by the legislature, accumulated sick leave is not available for inclusion and service credit transfers from other positions is only allowed for TRS covered positions, ERS or specified military service.  Current TRS rules allow transfers of service credit from some federal positions, some private schools, some colleges and universities and some private schools.  Salary increases of over 5% in a 12 month period will not be recognized.

The 401K defined contribution plan, the second part of the bill, allows members to be enrolled at a 5% contribution rate, they may not be allowed to withdraw money from their 401 K while employed in a TRS covered position, limits employer contributions to 1% plus up to 50% of a total of 2% of the employee salary and members will be vested in the system after 5 years of service.

This bill represents a significant reduction in benefits for anyone entering the teaching profession after January 1, 2017, and is being sold as a plan that allows teachers to keep their retirement plan if they choose to change professions.  In other words, it removes one of the incentives for teachers to stay in teaching for more than 5 years.  What a bargain!

Just after the turn of the century, the Georgia Legislature called for a “fiscal study” to look at the Employee Retirement System, presumably because it was costing the state too much money.  The ERS became, in 2007, a defined contribution program like the one being proposed for TRS.  Now, in addition to low pay, low morale and increased insurance costs (sound familiar, teachers?) the ERS retirement package provides even less incentive for state workers to stay in their positions for any length of time.  Ask a state employee what they think of the defined contribution retirement program.

It would seem our Legislature, in lieu of making teaching a more attractive profession, has found a way to make it even more unattractive to prospective teachers by proposing changes to TRS.  It’s apparently not enough to under fund education through austerity cuts that have been a staple of the education budget since 2003, micromanage teacher evaluations by adding junk science VAM, script test-centric teaching through Common Core standards, blame teachers for societal issues they did not create, grade schools through a CCRPI method designed to produce failure, burden teachers and students with standardized testing that again and again points out the effects of poverty on standardized test scores in the zip code effect version of “if we measure it enough it might go away,” agree to restore health coverage for under-paid part time school employees by “allowing” local systems to absorb the costs, give legislative lip service to “local control” and “individualized learning” while insisting on the same thing at the same time for every student, restoring part of the austerity cut in an election year and having the gall to call it an “increase for education” and now, to add insult to injury, propose a reduction in retirement benefits for the profession they all love to hate.

It’s little wonder that enrollment in teacher training programs in Georgia has decreased significantly since 2011.  UGA noted a 28% decrease in its teacher education program since that time, and KSU is down 23%.  Overall, teacher training programs in Georgia are down over 15% in the last 4 years.  That means over 6,000 students in Georgia have chosen NOT to become teachers, and just when we need them most.  Perhaps this is a sign that our Legislators need to rethink their priorities...or is it?

Perhaps this is just another road sign along the ALEC highway to the privatization of public education.  The American Legislative Exchange Council encouraged states to convert their defined benefit public pensions to 401 K and/or defined contribution plans with a report last August entitled “New Report Provides Solutions to State Public Pension Dilemmas”  (   Also listed on the ALEC website is model legislation for a pension reform act suitable for framing...or reframing, as the case may be.  See for yourself .)  You won’t find it on the ALEC website, but other sources list Fran Millar as a member (along with other members of the Georgia Legislature) of ALEC.  

The National Public Pension Coalition issued a statement about just such legislation as this in other states.  “When states have adopted pension overhaul legislation, they have found that it came at a significant cost.  Alaska and Michigan went down that road and saw their pension debt increase.  West Virginia adopted a 401 K like plan for public employees in 1991, but reversed course in 2006 after a report found that public employees had such low incomes in retirement that they were eligible for means-tested public programs, driving up costs to the state.”   The Plot Against Pensions noted that in Rhode Island, often used as a model by ALEC, costs were driven up by exorbitant fees to Wall Street money managers so much that Forbes Magazine called it “just blatant Wall Street gorging.”

I haven’t talked to any teachers yet, working or retired, that think this is a good idea.  In the interests of fairness, I will proudly tell you that I served in public education for over 39 years, and retired as a TRS member in good standing in July of 2013 with a little over 30 years in Georgia public education and I talk to teachers almost every day.  Maybe that’s the problem.  Maybe our Legislators don’t spend enough time talking to teachers, employed or retired.  If they keep finding bad ideas like this one, there may not be enough teachers left to talk to. I suppose we all knew it was coming.  The temptation of messing around with something that’s working as well as TRS is just too much for some politicians to resist.  Those billions of dollars that teachers put in there is just too tempting a target, and could be used for so many other things if only teachers weren’t so stubborn about it.  It’s probably no surprise to anyone that the Senate and House Retirement Committees will hold a joint meeting on Thursday, May 7 at 10am.  I have already contacted my Legislators and told them my opinions about adding yet another bad idea to an already full bag of bad legislative ideas concerning public education.  I hope you do the same.  Do it now.  The wolves have come out of the closet and are hiding behind the couch in the ALEC room.  ALEC is watching, and if you are in public education or have a child in public education they are not your friend.


Building Administrators Making a Difference for Public Education in Georgia - Elizabeth Anderson

    Dr. Anderson received a letter last week from one of her 4th graders.  Shyla wrote “I think that now we are under new leadership we should have a new fierce mascot, like something that describes a warrior’s bravery.  What I had in mind was Timberwolves...I know that Timberwolves would suit the school and the Warrior Way.  Timberwolves would represent our school by letting everyone know that we are all in a pack, just like wolves. We’re all in this together.  No one stands alone in this school!...(Timberwolves) are fast learners.  So are our little warriors.”
    Don’t think for a minute that kids don’t notice what happens when the culture in a school begins to change.  They usually know it before the adults do. W.L. Swain Elementary is in the little town of Plainville in Gordon County in northwestern Georgia.  The population of the town is 313, and students come from the town and the surrounding area.  There are 500 students in grades Pre-K through 5, and 73% of them participate in the Free/Reduced Lunch program.  Swain has 65 faculty and staff members.  Elizabeth Anderson was recruited 23 years ago by Superintendent David McCloud after she graduated from Georgia Southern with a degree in Early Childhood Education and has been in Gordon County ever since.  She initially taught Special Education at Ashworth Middle, earned a Master’s Degree in 1999 and an Educational Specialist degree in Leadership in 2004. Elizabeth was transferred to Belwood Elementary in 2000 and was named the school’s Teacher of the Year and Gordon County’s Teacher of the Year in 2004.  She served as AP at Red Bud Elementary and Sonoraville, completed her Ed. D. in Educational Administration and was named Principal of Sonoraville Elementary in 2010.  Dr. Susan Remillard, Superintendent of Gordon County Schools, transferred Elizabeth to Swain Elementary to serve as Principal in 2013.  She said “Dr. Anderson saw a school in need of direction; a school with so much potential; a school filled with eager, intelligent minds waiting for a chance to shine.  With all of her ambition, drive, heart and soul she jumped in with both feet, and W. L. Swain set its course to become a place “Where Learning Shapes Extraordinary Students.”  I knew without a doubt that she would be successful in leading Swain on a path to success.  She is a change agent with a vision for the how and why.  She is an advocate for all children.  She places value on professional growth opportunities designed to improve teacher efficacy and raise achievement while advancing the mission of the system.  She is an extraordinary educator who achieves amazing results.”
    Teachers and parents agree that Dr. Anderson is making a difference in the culture of the school.  Teacher Beverly Holland noted “Dr. Anderson has taken us from a culture of teachers working individually but not united.  She has visually improved the school using volunteers (including her own family) and teachers to make it a more welcoming atmosphere for stakeholders and students.  Teachers have a protected, collaborative planning time, in-house professional development, thought-out scheduling for every event, an explicit emergency plan that is practiced faithfully, incentives for students, unique fund raising events and, most importantly, the security of knowing we have a knowledgeable captain in charge of the ship.”  Parent Amy Holmes stated “Dr. Anderson is a visible administrator that provides strong leadership, structure and a celebration of student and teacher successes.  She has invited the community to be a part of the school and started a reading bowl that involved students and parents from all over the county.  She sends out a parent link every Sunday afternoon informing parents of the activities for the coming week, started a soccer camp for our kids run by high school students and has made it clear that parents and people from the town are welcome at Swain Elementary.  She has found new resources for technology, the curriculum and even found a way to buy new music for the chorus.”  Teacher Noreen Queen noted “Teachers know now that the expectations and the focus are on students and instruction.  We are receiving professional learning regularly and are expected to implement what we learn.  We know that she will be in every classroom every day, she knows every student’s name and parents are starting to make requests to move their children to Swain from other schools.  Wow!  I’ve never seen that in the 23 years I have been teaching here.”
    The PAGE High School Redesign Initiative also includes elementary schools, and focuses on teaching teachers to move away from the traditional emphasis on student conformity, lecture and worksheets and toward the goal of providing challenging work that engages students in the learning process.  The program is provided free of charge to participating schools with no requirements for membership in PAGE for participants, and teaches teachers to share what they learn with their colleagues within their own schools and within their school system.  Ricky Clemmons is the Director of HSRI, and said “My first thought about Dr. Anderson is 'class.'  She has it and you can spot it a mile away.  She is committed to doing the right thing for students, and the things she does an an administrator begin and end with doing what is best for students.  She is the lead learner for her faculty, and has a true understanding of what it means to transform a school, build capacity with her staff, develop and nurture teachers, build community support and provide a clear direction and focus for all who are served by her school.  Her ego never gets in the way of doing what is best for kids.”  Assistant HSRI Director Judy Henry agrees.  “Elizabeth is not a warm and fuzzy Principal who joins arms, sways and sings Kum-Ba-Yah with others.  She is goal oriented and has the communication skills to encourage others to stretch beyond what they believe they can do.  Returning classroom decisions to teachers is one of her secrets to success.  In Elizabeth’s school a tremendous amount of vertical and horizontal communication needed to be established.  She said that her work at Sonoraville Elementary prepared her for what needed to be done at Swain.  A wise woman, indeed.”
    Elizabeth hires new teachers based on character.  “I craft questions that will draw out their character in the interview.  You can teach a willing person with a dedicated curriculum, but it’s difficult to instill character in an adult.  I want teachers who have a passion to be the best and intrinsically raise the bar for themselves.  Those are the teachers that will do professional learning on their own and challenge themselves to be the best.”  She believes that effective administration requires vision, strong communication skills, excellent listening skills, solid instructional practices and trustworthiness.  “In order for a school to grow there must be a vision of where we will be in 5 years.  You have to be able to communicate that vision to stakeholders and a wide variety of groups.  Principals must also be a part of professional learning and understand solid instructional practices in order to have meaningful conversations and provide targeted feedback.  Our stakeholders must know without a doubt that we have our students’ best interests in all of our actions.”  She also mentioned that leaders should never ask teachers to do anything they wouldn’t do themselves.  “I have morning and afternoon duty right along with them” she said.  “I am extremely organized and always let them know what is coming in advance.  I make sure teachers have time to teach and not get bogged down with duties and activities.  I create an atmosphere where teachers can teach and students can learn.”
    Dr. Anderson suggests that the current evaluation instrument for Georgia teachers be modified.  “I wish it didn’t mandate I be in the best teachers’ classrooms as much as those of teachers that struggle and need more support.  The current instrument is basically a one-size-fits-all, and there is just not enough time to get in there and support those that need it most.  It is frustrating.”  She also said she would like to sit down with Governor Deal and Arne Duncan and tell them that educators are not the problem and blaming educators is not the solution.  “Politicians need to listen to educators and put funding back into our schools for our students.  I would enjoy the opportunity to sit at a table with them to help focus on solutions and not on blaming teachers.”  She likes the fact that her school is the heart of the Plainville community.  “Our school has struggled in the past.  This year our school has seen incredible growth.  The community support for our school has been tremendous, and I believe they are cheering for us.  I am planted in my community and believe in the students I serve.  I do not want limits on them because they are from a small town.  I want them to bloom and achieve what they set their minds to do.  The sky's the limit.”
    Her favorite story is that of the starfish, where a man walking along the beach notices his friend picking up starfish stranded by a receding tide and throwing them one by one back into the ocean.  “What are you doing?” the man asked his friend.  “Throwing starfish back into the ocean” was his reply.  “The sun is coming up and the tide is going out.  If I don’t throw them back in they’ll die.”  The man said “don’t you realize there are thousands and thousands of starfish on the miles and miles of this beach?  You can’t possibly make a difference.”  His friend picked up another starfish and threw it into the water.  “I made a difference for that one” he said.  The man learned a valuable lesson that day, and began helping his friend throw starfish back into the ocean, making a difference for those that he could.  Elizabeth Anderson is making a difference for kids and for the community in Plainville at W.L.Swain Elementary School.  I hope they take Shyla’s advice.  I think Timberwolves would be a wonderful mascot for a school that is teaching kids to learn fast and to help each other succeed.  Dr. Anderson is making a difference for the students and community at W.L. Swain Elementary.  She would be the perfect Leader of the Pack.


Just Imagine

   My grandsons and I talk a lot about school.  That’s not surprising considering it’s their job and for 39 years it was mine.  Stevie is in 5th grade and Tommie is in 3rd.  Tommie confided in me a few weeks ago that, despite what I may have heard “Pop, 3rd grade is no joke.”  Their parents and Nana and I are very happy with their respective teachers, their schools, the administrators and the system.  Any issues that come up with either of them are quickly addressed and communication is excellent.  We like the fact that their schools fit my definition of community schools and pay special attention to every child.  The boys tell me without too much prodding what they are reading, what they talk about in class, their progress and their likes and dislikes about their classes, the teacher made tests they take, their friends in their classes and how their teachers handle the problems that come up with behaviors and disruptions. They have learned they can’t get away with one word answers to the question “what did you do in school today” and they have long since learned not to try. They both think that school is what they have to do in order to participate in baseball, and I have no problem with that.  It’s pretty much what I thought when I was 10 and recess was my favorite subject.  Stevie told me last week that he was worried about the tests that were coming up after spring break.  I knew immediately what he meant.  The teachers were worried about student performance and that translates to behaviors that kids pick up on much quicker than many people realize.  I asked him if his friends were worried about the tests.  “We don’t talk about it much” he replied, “but when we do I can tell they’re all worried about how they will do.  Our teacher doesn’t come right out and say she’s worried, but we do hear how important it is for us and for our school that we do our best.”  That concerned me, so we talked some more about why he was worried.  “Nobody really knows what’s going to be on the test, and it’s not like the tests our teacher gives.  She makes sure we know what we’re supposed to answer,  and it only lasts for a little while, but this one’s different.  It’s long and takes up a whole week and every day is a different part we’re supposed to know.”  He also said they spent at least part of each day for the past several weeks on timed assignments.  I knew what that meant too.
    My first step was to talk to their parents.  They had both picked up on the subtle clues that the boys had given about their concerns for “the tests” that were coming soon after spring break.  “I wish they didn’t have to take them” their Dad said.  “They’re worrying for no reason.  From what I’ve read those tests don’t help teachers and certainly don’t help with the boys’ education.”  “If you’re serious about what you just said” I told him, I know where you can find out more information.  I directed him to the Opt Out Georgia Facebook page.  They read everything they could find from that source and from others.  They also read up on some of the things I had written about standardized tests; how they harm rather than help kids and how they serve a political and not an educational purpose.  The final straw for him was when I told him “politicians mostly have their kids in private schools.  They don’t insist that private school students, teachers or schools be graded through forced “accountability” measures.  They only insist on it for public school kids.  If it were a really good idea and helped the educational process, don’t you think standardized testing would have been adopted by private schools by now?”  He wanted to know what they could do to opt their boys out.  “It’s pretty easy” I told him.  “I’ll send an email to the Superintendent and to both Principals telling them you will send a note with each boy to school.  We will keep it simple.  Write ‘my son Stevie will not take any test not created by his teacher.’ Put your contact information on it.  You can follow up with a phone call to the Principal to make sure they got it and to decide with him whether they should stay home during test mornings or can be provided at place to read, study or do classwork in the media center.”
    There was no issue with either grandsons’ teachers, Principal or with the Superintendent.  They didn’t come right out and say it, but I got the impression they would like to see an end to the madness of political testing and a return to a concentration on educating children.  Opting out is one of the best ways I can imagine to fight the stupidity of mandated standardized testing that, after more than a decade of failed test, retest and test again is finally seeing the pushback from parents that will eventually mean its end.
    Just imagine the millions of dollars spent on standardized test development, scoring, actual testing, test training and test security that could be spent to hire new teachers, lower class sizes, restore art and music and elective classes, buy new school technology, books, materials, end furlough days or - gasp - give teachers a raise.  Imagine an end to the political accountabullies and their silly insistence that standardized testing is the only way to hold teachers and schools accountable.  Just imagine the return of the authority of the classroom teacher to actually teach their students rather than follow a scripted test-centric routine designed not to improve teaching and learning but to improve test scores. Just imagine schools focused on taking students where they are educationally and socially and concentrating on teaching and learning rather than on how they test.  Just imagine students being judged by the classroom work they do rather than by a score on a standardized test.  Just imagine the students in public schools being educated just the way that students in private schools are learning - from their teachers and not from a mandated testing curriculum. Just imagine your kid’s school being judged by the parents, teachers and community members on their effectiveness rather than some made-up metric based on the junk science of standardized testing.  Just imagine teachers being judged by their administrators and mentored by other teachers to help them learn how to be more effective in what they do rather than by basing their effectiveness, salary and advancement on a precentage of the test scores of students in their room using a voodoo math VAM method that has been condemned by the American Statistical Association?  
    Just imagine that opting your kids out of the insanity of standardized testing could help bring an end to the abomination of political testing, the charade of corporate school reform, the resegregation of schools, the intrusion of a standardized national curriculum and end the demonization of the teaching profession.  Just imagine. That’s why we’re opting our boys out.  Can you do less for your kids and grandkids?


Building Administrators Making a Difference in Public Education in Georgia - Gina Linder

Building Administrators Making a Difference in Public Education in Georgia - Gina Linder

    In the hall just outside the Main Office of Murray County High School, in a long glass display case, is a row of eight graduation gowns.  Each gown represents a different school year and each is covered with the signatures of the students representing the Senior class for that year.  Gina Linder conducts a ceremony for every grade level at the beginning of each year emphasizing the importance of graduation, but the Senior meeting is special.  At the end of that meeting, each member of the Senior Class gets to sign the green graduation gown.  The gown, with the signatures in silver ink, goes on display in the hall and serves as a daily reminder to MCHS Seniors of their commitment to graduation.  Gina wears the gown to the graduation ceremony and gets to spend at least an hour before the event posing for pictures with Seniors pointing to their signature on the garment.  Afterwards she returns it to the permanent display in the hall to continue to serve as a testament to the graduating class and as a reminder for other classes of the commitment to graduation..  
    Murray County High School is in Chatsworth GA.  The 2010 census counted 4,299 residents, and the town serves as the county seat.  It sits on the western edge of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in the mountains of north Georgia, and is less than 12 miles from Dalton.  The school serves grades 9-12, has 835 students, is 21% Hispanic, has an economically disadvantaged student rate of 74%, has 61 certified staff including teachers, administrators and counselors and 19 classified employees.  The leading employers in the area are the public education system and the carpet mills.  Every year, MCHS has a number of first generation graduates and many families struggle to make financial ends meet.  MCHS students spend countless hours volunteering their time and efforts to assist with the Community Christmas program, several canned food drives throughout the year and the “Saturday Sacks” program that provides sack lunches for students to take home when they leave school on Fridays.  Students volunteer in raising money for a Child Abuse Awareness program and Relay for Life. The school also has a free summer lunch program for students from disadvantaged families.
    When Gina Linder was appointed Principal, her first goal was to change the culture of MCHS.  The graduation rate was 57%, test scores were below state averages, the school was on the “Needs Improvement” list for the 3rd consecutive year and, even more troubling, averaged almost 1000 discipline referrals per school year.  “There were distinct feelings of frustration and negativity from students, parents and teachers” Gina remembered, “and my first day I made our school motto ‘Graduation is Our Goal.’  Students hear that every morning and afternoon now as part of the announcements.”  She also decided the Student Council and  a teacher led Leadership Team would become key elements in the decision making process.  “Both are active participants in academic and social aspects of our school,” Gina said, “and develop strategic goals, analyze data and present new strategies for each school year.”  One of the student contributions is the PRIDE model that became the foundation of the school culture.  “Model Responsibility, Commit to Graduation, Have Self Control and Show Respect.  The MCHS model encompasses our school culture” Gina said.
    “We have overcome the obstacles created by budget cuts” she noted, “including our 160 day school calendar.  Our graduation rate has increased significantly, and has been over 90% for the last three years.  Our students’ scores on standardized tests have been consistently above the state average and we now average less than 250 discipline referrals per year.  We offer 8 college courses on our campus, and have about 150 of our Juniors and Seniors enrolled in the college program.  Our state CCRPI scores are among the highest in the northwest Georgia area.  Our school is the focal point of our small community” Gina continued, “and the academic success and climate of the high school is one of the first things people look at when deciding to move into a community or start a business here.  The school and the community have to be partners in ensuring that students become responsible citizens.  A high school is a direct reflection of the community in which it resides, and a community, in turn, is a direct reflection of its high school.”
    Gina went to college on a basketball scholarship, and graduated with a degree in ELA and a desire to coach girls basketball.  She taught and coached for 12 years before accepting a position as a middle school assistant principal.  She was named MS Principal the following year and asked to become Principal at MCHS in February of 2007.  “Coaching helped develop my already competitive nature” she said, “and even though I knew I had a lot to learn, I loved the idea of taking on the challenges at MCHS.”  
    The Superintendent of Murray County Schools is Vickie Reed.  She observed “Gina has successfully developed a positive culture where all staff and students are held to high expectations.  Her hands-on approach of using data to inform and monitor instruction when meeting with teachers and staff has led to higher academic achievement for all students.  Mrs. Linder exemplifies the term instructional leader.”  Andrea Morrow, Curriculum and Instruction Facilitator at MCHS agrees.  “I have been working with Gina for over 10 years.  She is my mentor and role model.  Mrs. Linder has created a caring and positive school culture, but that’s only part of it.  She believes that academics, relationships and communication with parents are crucial components for helping students achieve success.  She is innovative and values the thoughts and ideas of her stakeholders.  She has taught us that success is not an isolated accomplishment nor is it achievable without consistency and hard work.  Teachers and students work hard to meet her expectations because they know they have her support and loyalty.  Our teachers believe in Gina Linder because she believes in us..  She creates and supports opportunities for growth, and is a visionary.  She knows that as teachers grow and learn student learning increases, teachers feel empowered by her support and become leaders and teachers stay at MCHS because of her leadership.”
    “I look for teaching strategies and personality when hiring teachers” said Mrs. Linder.  “A person can be an expert in content knowledge, but if they aren’t energetic, can’t build relationships with students, aren’t enthusiastic about teaching and don’t have the ability to actively engage students in learning through a variety of solid teaching strategies then they will not be a successful teacher.”  Gina expects teachers to engage in bell to bell instruction, expects every teacher in every classroom to use writing and SAT vocabulary, use lexile data to differentiate instruction and to use “depth of knowledge” activities to help prepare students for life after high school.  “I think teachers appreciate the fact that I am open and honest with them.  Most of them also know I was a very dedicated teacher who understands the challenges they face.  My administrators and I have an open door policy, and I think teachers appreciate the fact they can come into our offices and share both professional and personal issues with us.”  
    Timothy is a 2012 graduate of MCHS, and believes strongly that MCHS is a special place and that Mrs. Linder makes a positive difference in the lives of her students.  “The lesson I learned there is that happiness comes from service” he said.  “The teachers are accessible and go out of their way to help students.  I always felt I was an individual there instead of just another student.”  The involvement of community members and business leaders also made an impression on him.  “They led experiences for students that included filling out college applications, career days and Leadership Murray, where business leaders helped bridge a gap between students and those who make the county work.”  
    Gina observed that being a high school administrator is a rewarding career, but can be stressful and challenging.  “I focus on being proactive” she said, “and always try to be fair, firm and consistent with students, teachers and parents.  Our students need us and depend on us to provide a safe and rigorous learning environment, and their future has to be our first priority in every decision.  I laugh when I say this, but being an administrator also includes all of those things I tried to avoid as a teacher; lunch duty every day, bus duty every day, hall duty every day, 15 hour days every day...the list goes on.”  She also says her parents prepared her for the challenges of administration by teaching her independence, morals, values, determination, a positive work ethic and self-confidence.  “They taught me that mistakes are to be embraced and that people should be valued and cherished.  They helped me understand that there is a difference in thinking you are a leader and in earning the respect required to be a successful leader.”  Gina also learned from Danny Dunn, the Principal that hired her for her first teaching job.  “He involved teachers in decision making, and walked us through the process.  He also taught me that just because we thought something was a great idea doesn’t mean it would turn out great in practice, and that admitting those things to teachers was a strength and not a weakness.”  She also admires her Superintendent, Dr. Vickie Reed.  “Dr. Reed leads by example and sets high expectations for herself and for those that work for her.  She helps me stay focused on the important aspects of being an administrator, and has given me the opportunity to implement new initiatives and help make positive changes at MCHS.”
    Gina’s leadership led MCHS to be the first high school in Georgia to be named as a National Model High School for the Commit to Graduate program, an AP Honors School in 2014 and a Title I Reward School for progress, also in 2014.  She presented at the National CASE conference and the Georgia “Turnaround Schools” Conference, serves as the 2nd Vice President of the Georgia Association for Secondary School Principals, serves on the Superintendent’s Action Team for her system and has completed training as a Principal’s Coach for the Georgia School Superintendents Association.  
    Mrs. Linder feels one of her most important duties is to mentor teachers.  She plans meaningful professional learning activities for the faculty that she also attends.  “Great teachers are leaving our profession” she observed, “and many of them because of the amount of time we spend testing students and the misplaced emphasis on the results of those tests.  Between overtesting and unfunded mandates, a teacher’s job has become exponentially harder over the last several years.  A good administrator can never forget what it’s like to be a teacher, and has to truly care about her faculty professionally and personally and about her students.”  Andrea Morrow sees this commitment from Gina daily, and remarked “when I look back at my career after thirty years, I will remember her as the person who made sure I stayed in the teaching profession and who helped me determine what type of educator I would become.  She is that rare breed of administrator who maintains utter professionalism while still cultivating an element of approachability that allows us to respect her as much as we lean on her.”
    There is no higher praise.  Gina Linder is indeed making a difference in Murray County.