Oct. 15—Dalton Public Schools students have a choice of high schools, and in order to entice them to attend a new school rather than one with more than a century of history and tradition, building an alluring school culture is paramount, said The Dalton Academy's principal.
"We want everyone to have an awesome education here, and we want every interaction we have with parents to be world class, because we're going to build up this school by (students and families) talking it up in the community," said Matthew Mederios, who spent nearly two decades as a high school principal and assistant principal in Florida before moving north to take over the academy, which opened for students in grades 10-12 for the 2021-22 school year. "We have to give students a great experience every day."
"Every student could check the box for Dalton High — it's their (decision) — so we need to show them we know what markets are hot and what jobs are in demand so they're best prepared for life after high school," said Mederios, who was named the 2017 Lee County (Florida) Person of the Year, the 2015-16 North Fort Myers (Florida) Rotarian of the Year and the 2010 Assistant Principal of the Year in Lee County. "We're going to be competing against ourself, constantly improving, and if you're continually staying sharp you can feel good about what you've done at the end of the day."
Mederios embraces working in a school system where students have a choice of high school, and he's accustomed to it, as he was in a similar situation in Florida.
"I think it's best for students to have a choice. I have two children of my own" — Luke, a seventh-grader at Hammond Creek Middle School, and Riley, a third-grader at Westwood School — and "I'd want them to have a choice," he said. "If they have choices, they can explore more interests, and that helps them find their passion" so they have a better idea of their plans by the time they finish high school.
It's "a true choice school" and a "highly-relational environment," said Matt Evans, chairman of the Dalton Board of Education. The academy is "a magnet school (that will) prepare students for college, career and civic life."
Because of The Dalton Academy, "I firmly believe Dalton Public Schools becomes a better district for our kids," Evans said. "A rising tide lifts all boats, and the best is yet to come."
At the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce, "we spend a lot of time thinking about quality of life for our community, and education is an important part of that," said Rob Bradham, the chamber's president. This new school "is an important step in the right direction" of providing access to even more — and better — educational opportunities in Dalton.
"We want (this community) to be a place where people can start a family, (open) a business and (begin) a great career," Bradham added. "Dream big and thrive is what it's about, and this school will help our community achieve (all of) those things."
At The Dalton Academy, teachers and staff will "give (students) the tools to take it to another level and achieve their dreams," said Debra Pourquoi, who had been an elementary teacher for Dalton Public Schools but moved to the academy to coach basketball and teach special education. "I want them to feel positive."
A more intimate environment
The smaller learning environment at The Dalton Academy will be a draw for many students, as "we can get to know them on an individual level and create a family atmosphere," Mederios said. "We want students to feel comfortable here and know they can talk to us about anything they need, because they're (in a setting) with trusting adults."
Smaller classes mean more personal attention for students, and that "will be awesome for our kids," according to Tami McClain, an Exceptional Student Services teacher who moved from Dalton High to the academy. "They'll get so much more out of it."
"The start of the school year couldn't have gone any better," Mederios said. The Dalton Academy has 361 students, 135 of whom are in grade 10 and 127 of whom are seniors.
"We ought to celebrate those numbers," said Evans. "It's a new school, but all those kids chose it, and it's worth celebrating."
"We were a little surprised to see more than 100 seniors" opt for The Dalton Academy with only one year remaining of high school, but "really pleased to see it," Mederios said. The Dalton Academy also houses the Newcomer Academy for students new to the country, and that enrollment has skyrocketed in a few months, from 14 in mid-July to 64 in early October.
Tradition will have to be built at The Dalton Academy, but a "very excited" student pep club launched before the start of the school year, Mederios said. They've done everything from "helping design the senior T-shirts" to planning dances.
Mederios spent more of his summer creating a master schedule than on just about anything else, because that schedule is also coordinated with those of Dalton High School and Dalton Junior High School, the latter of which shares the campus with The Dalton Academy.
Because roughly 250 Dalton High students are in career pathways that moved to The Dalton Academy, they attend some classes at the latter while remaining enrolled at the former, and since career pathways begin in ninth grade, those students at the junior high will have some presence at The Dalton Academy, too, Mederios said.
"Making sure all the kids are in all the right classes at the right times is very complex and quite a task for" Dalton High's principal Stephanie Hungerpiller, the junior high's principal Missie McKinney and Mederios.
The schedules of all three schools match to "make it easier on students," he said. "Consistency is super important."
At The Dalton Academy, each student selects one of eight pathways — entrepreneurship and leadership, healthcare science and sports medicine, audio/visual technology and film, law enforcement/forensic science, sports and entertainment marketing and management, teaching as a profession, early childhood education and a translation program — and two are drawing more interest than the rest, early childhood education and healthcare science and sports medicine, he said.
The latter is "big enough to support three intro-level classes already," while the former is so popular Mederios is already pondering how to eventually add a nursing classification within the pathway, since "there's a national shortage of nurses right now, and we have a great college nursing program right here at Dalton State (College)."
Because of the school's "fresh and unique design," there's a "wow factor," Mederios said. "Flex seating in every class" allows for "differentiation to meet the needs of all students," while the building's lighting is "second to none and will provide students a fun experience."
Mederios is thrilled with the "interior entryway, because it really stands out when students come into The Dalton Academy," he said. "It's a solid, beautiful structure."
He's also pleased with the work in the marketing classroom, which will also function as a school store, as "we removed an interior wall to open up the space, and there's going to be a window for the school store," he said. The store will offer students "hands-on marketing experience."
"I think (this school) is going to be great for our community," Joey Wills, who moved from teaching marketing at Dalton High to the academy to lead the sports and entertainment marketing and management pathway, said earlier this year. "I'm looking forward to seeing how the school will grow."
The stadium under construction "is going to be incredible," Mederios said. "People will be blown away by it."
The field, which meets FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association) soccer size requirements, will "probably be one of the largest fields between Atlanta and Knoxville," Tennessee, according to Rusty Lount, director of operations for Dalton Public Schools.
The academy will offer volleyball, basketball, soccer, track, Esports, cross country and competitive dance in its first year, Mederios said. More sports could be offered based on interest level.
The academy is "historic" both because of "what it is and how it's been designed," Evans said. He hopes students will return in future years to the school "to say 'Thank you' for how (the academy) served them and helped them reach their God-given potential."