Finley hopes to hear from parents and staff as new Blue Ridge School principal

·5 min read

Aug. 28—Though most recently a principal in Whitfield County Schools, new Blue Ridge School Principal Ali Finley is very familiar with Dalton Public Schools, both as a student and as an educator.

"It's exciting to be back in this system and see some familiar faces from the past," Finley said. "I'm leaving a place (Valley Point Elementary School) I loved, and where I was loved, but it's something I felt led to do."

Family considerations were the main factor in Finley moving from being principal at Valley Point Elementary to Blue Ridge School.

"This was a very hard decision to make, (as) I absolutely love Valley Point Elementary, (where) the staff and students are incredible, but I had to do what's best for my family," said Finley, who took over at Valley Point beginning with the 2020-21 school year. "I have a son who attends Hammond Creek Middle school (who) is also very active in multiple sports, (while) my husband is a small business owner, (and) my daughter will" start prekindergarten next year.

"Juggling two different school schedules and shuffling kids all over to their events has been difficult," said Finley, who was assistant principal at Pleasant Grove Elementary for two years before becoming Valley Point Elementary's principal. "I think being on the same schedule will help, (and) I want to be" at Blue Ridge "for quite awhile."

Both Blue Ridge and Valley Point are "family-oriented schools with a family feel," so they share that common culture, and Finley aims to fit into the family, she said. "Getting to know people takes time," but it'll be easier for Finley than when she started as Valley Point's principal, considering that was in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I was meeting parents outside under an awning, because no one was allowed in the building" because of safety protocols, she recalled. In her second year, Valley Point Elementary was able to hold more "family nights, which are huge," and she plans to continue the "well-attended" family nights that are already a hallmark of the Blue Ridge calendar.

"I hope parents come in and talk to me, and it's the same with staff," she said. "Communication with parents is huge — they want to see you be available — and when I talk to parents, I ask them what they do at home with their children, how we can support that, and tell them how they can support what we're doing."

Staff "want someone they can come to about anything, and I'll be a listening ear, because it's important to know what is going on in their personal lives that might carry over" to their professional lives, she said. "I'll never ask anyone to do something I wouldn't do, and doing the little things (demonstrates) you're a team player."

Finley looks forward to being able to "do more fun, social, team-building things with staff" at Blue Ridge than she could early in her Valley Point tenure due to the pandemic.

"I've heard from staff they want the fun back, and we're going to have fun along the way," she said. "They want to feel appreciated, and a nice note in their box — or a treat on their desk — goes a long way."

In addition to the family feel of Blue Ridge, staff members have emphasized with Finley a desire for "consistency," she said. It's important to "be a clear communicator."

"Every decision I make will be what is best for kids, but that doesn't mean you can't ask me why," she said. "Staff values giving input, and if I can explain the why, that's really important to them."

Brittany Sewell, who was Finley's assistant principal for two years at Valley Point Elementary and is her successor there as principal, benefited from a close, inclusive relationship with Finley, as "we worked together to build ideas, and she welcomed my suggestions," Sewell said. "I also learned a lot about organization and time management from her."

A native of Illinois, Finley came to Dalton when she was in elementary school, and after graduating from Dalton High School and then Georgia Southern University she began her teaching career in DeKalb County Schools for two years before returning to Dalton for 11 years at City Park School. Since her college days at Georgia Southern — where she earned a degree in early childhood education — Finley had aspirations for an administrative role in education, and it was at City Park where she began to work as an instructional coach before moving to Cedar Ridge Elementary School to be an instructional coach there.

Blue Ridge is a significantly larger school than Valley Point Elementary, with a higher Hispanic population, and she expects the social-emotional health of students will be a significant priority, as it was at Valley Point and many other schools.

There's been a shift in recent years — caused at least in part by the pandemic — toward understanding and tending to student needs beyond mere academics, said Finley, who has an educational specialist degree in educational leadership from Lincoln Memorial University and a master's in early childhood education from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. As Valley Point's principal, "I saw a lot of social, emotional and mental needs with kids, and that was not the case 10 years ago."

"It seems to be a huge problem, and it's sad," she said. "If you don't meet those needs, first, you can talk all day, but they won't learn anything."

Finley succeeds Kyle Abernathy, who was named Blue Ridge's interim principal after then-principal Christine Long departed in the middle of the 2021-22 school year to become a director of school relations for Waterford.org, a nonprofit provider of early learning software. Abernathy, who had joined Blue Ridge as Long's assistant principal at the start of the school year, will be a district instructional specialist for Dalton Public Schools for the 2022-23 school year.

Finley's overarching vision for Blue Ridge is concise but also wide-reaching, she said. She wants families to know "their kids are safe, loved and learning."