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Back to the essentials

June 20, 2017

Rutherford County Schools

There’s something different at Smyrna Primary School this year.

The faculty and administration, including newly hired principal Felicia James, are determined to make sure the roughly 600 students and their parents not only see the differences on day one, but also feel the change in its culture.

They agree the foundation begins with expressing love.

The process of changing the culture at Smyrna Primary began last fall when some Title I funds that were not already included in the annual budget were released in November.

Barnes, who had previously attended a workshop at The Ron Clark Academy broached the idea of sending 27 certified staff members to Atlanta for two days.

The Ron Clark Academy is a highly-acclaimed, nonprofit middle school located in Southeast Atlanta. The Academy has received both national and international recognition for its success in educating students with academic rigor, passion and creativity balanced by a strict code of discipline, according to its website.

Last fall, no one was expecting Dr. Gale Vogel, who had been the principal at Smyrna Primary for 17 years, to announce her retirement.

“We were really worried about that,” said Meghan McCleary, the school’s counselor. “We had all these plans and we’ve done a lot to prepare for next year already, so we were like, ‘What is that going to mean now?’”

But with the hiring of James, the timing of their trip to The Ron Clark Academy could not have been better.

James was one of 18 certified employees from David Youree Elementary, who had previously attended the academy and had been implementing many of the same fundamental ideas at David Youree.

James interviewed for the principal position at Smyrna Primary after seeing a large delegation from the school had traveled to Atlanta.

“I saw it on their Twitter (feed),” said James, who added she wished she could have been able to do the same while at David Youree Elementary, “so I knew they were there. These words don’t capture (my feelings) well enough, but wow.”

James, who met her staff for the first time last week, said it’s encouraging to know that half of them have firsthand experience at The Ron Clark Academy.

The staff was relieved to learn, like them, James is “slide certified.”

After completing the first day of training at the academy, all educators take part in a schoolwide presentation in which each of them take a turn coming down the two-story slide and are greeted by the students.

Many teachers and administrators have attended single-day and two-day workshops at The Ron Clark Academy. In addition to Smyrna Primary and David Youree, educators from Walter Hill Elementary, Kittrell Elementary, John Colemon Elementary, Cedar Grove Elementary, Roy Waldron and Smyrna Elementary along with Smyrna and LaVergne middle schools are among the many who have become slide certified in recent years.

“It’s one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen,” said Laura Schofield, Title I facilitator for Rutherford County Schools.

The academy’s mission is to deliver the highest quality educational experience where global citizens are born through advanced rigor, engaging teaching methods, and a passionate climate and culture. It’s vision and founding principles can be found at

Shortly after the group returned back to Rutherford County, James was named the new principal of Smyrna Primary School.

Assistant Principal Angela Barnes sent a simple message to the entire staff: “She’s slide certified.”

“When Mrs. Barnes sent the email out,” McCleary said, “we were like, ‘Woo.’”

Last week, on their own time, nearly the entire staff voluntarily met at the school library.

They met James for the first time, shared their personal experiences from the trip and modified Ron Clark’s Essential 55 to represent their own Essential 10, which are described as non-negotiable expectations.

Among the 10 expectations Smyrna Primary – these are for students, staff and visitors alike – are things like “make eye contact when speaking,” “respect others’ comments, opinions and ideas” and to “learn from your mistakes and move on.”

Before even speaking with her new staff, James was quoted in an article, “If you’re going to have high expectations for others, you first have to start with yourself.”

Coincidentally that quote also summarizes the expectation or hope Barnes had for those making the trip. The reactions shared on the four-hour ride home from Atlanta and the two-hour meeting in the library exceeded Barnes’ hope.

They each shared stories of high energy coupled with high expectations.

Everyone said the enthusiasm of such a positive culture was contagious.

Several teachers talked about self-reflection after returning home.

“It’s an inviting atmosphere,” said Amber Sagen, who completed her first year of teaching kindergarten at Smyrna Primary. “After the first day I never wanted to leave.”

Only after returning home, Sagen opened a new notebook and wrote: “Ron Clark! Now what?”

She then started a personal list of expectations. Without previously talking about their experiences, McCleary started a notebook of her own.

Coincidentally both of them were uncertain beforehand.

McCleary said she had concerns. Sagen tried to remain open-minded.

“When we walked through the gate and we were greeted by fifth- and sixth-graders,” Sagen recalled, “who were smiling and shaking our hands, that moment put my worry at ease. I thought, ‘Wow, they really want to be here.’ It’s exciting and Ron Clark greeted us at the door.”

Clark eased McCleary’s worries when he explained that even though the academy is a private school, 80 percent of the student body receive free or reduced lunch and that everyone receives need-based financial scholarships.

Afterward Barnes stressed the biggest mistake they could make is to think Smyrna Primary could mirror everything they saw and experienced at The Ron Clark Academy.

Instead they have to strategic about their choices, which is why they’re starting with an Essential 10 as opposed to Clark’s Essential 55.

“We are their foundation,” said Barnes. “We are their opportunity for a successful future.”

James added, “If you have expectations without the relationships, you won’t go anywhere.”

James is making it a point to learn the names of every single students and their parents.

“If we don’t know their names it’s hard to have a relationship with them,” she said.

And on day one, she aims to assure her students the classroom is a team, everyone is together and that no one is alone, Sagen said.

“They have to trust that you have their best interest at heart,” McCleary said. “That you’re doing this for them.”

Barnes concluded, “Whether you’re in the kindergarten hallway or the fifth grade hallway, we’re part of something bigger than ourselves.”

PHOTOS / (1-3) Provided and (4-5) Keith Ryan Cartwright
Top Photo: Smyrna Primary delegation of 27 teachers and staff members pictured with Ron Clark. Second Photo: Smyrna Primary teachers choose a house for day two. Third Photo: Felicia James with Ron Clark. Fourth Photo: Teachers from Smyrna Primary work on their own Essential 10. Fifth Photo: Group of SP teachers work to confirm their Essential 10 list.