New middle school makes 'opportunities available to every student'

·5 min read

Sep. 10—A state-of-the-art theater, valuable outdoor space and more choices for students regarding electives allow Hammond Creek Middle School to offer a wide variety of student opportunities and experiences, according to the school's principal.

Dalton Middle School didn't have an actual theater, so while students were still able to perform, the "tech side" was missing, said Lauri Johnson, who moved from being principal at Dalton Middle School to Hammond Creek. The theater at Hammond Creek boasts a sound board and a light board, so students can explore "behind the stage," which opens theater up to more students, as not everyone is comfortable acting on stage in front of an audience.

The school boasts "a great layout," but the theater area, in particular, is "amazing," said Heidi Bethel, whose daughter, Leola, is a dancer and seventh-grader at Hammond Creek. Leola is "so excited" about the theater and its backstage area.

"I have theater arts as a class, and I can't wait to perform on that stage," said seventh-grader Bella Hankins. "I love theater and theater arts."

Hammond Creek also offers "a kiln and a nice art room," Johnson said. "We have a space designed for a podcast studio," too.

The site for Hammond Creek includes woods, and "we're trying to get a path through there (while also) building some trails," she said. "Scientific observation from a natural perspective is part of the seventh-grade science curriculum," so a quasi-outdoor classroom with paths and trails on site can be "really educational" for students.

At Hammond Creek, students have more elective courses, up to four a year, from band and physical education to computers and art to foreign languages like Spanish and German, Johnson said.

"Middle school is a good time to begin thinking about 'What am I interested in?' Sometimes, they just need their eyes opened a little bit."

Hammond Creek, the first new school to open for Dalton Public Schools in 15 years, began hosting students in grades six and seven last month as the school system reconfigured grades. Students in grades eight and nine now attend Dalton Junior High School on the remodeled campus of Dalton Middle School, the same site that hosts The Dalton Academy, a school for grades 10-12.

While Johnson typically prefers to devote her summers to "reflecting on how we can make instructional improvements," the "logistics" of opening a new building meant "a lot of long days" this summer, she explained in July. "What is the car line going to look like? How many buses? What will the pickup and drop-off times be?"

There's also the matter of the building's stairwells, she said.

"Will they be two-way or one-way? Or will they be two-way sometimes and one-way sometimes?"

Even fire evacuation plans can't be taken for granted in a new building, she said.

"Those maps had been hanging up in (Dalton Middle School's) classroom for years, but not here in a new building."

Most important, however, is establishing a culture, which she wants to be "positive and spirited."

"Apathy can start setting in for some students in middle school," Johnson said. "When you look at data, you see" most students enjoy elementary school, but that enthusiasm begins to erode in middle school and stagnates through high school.

"I want them excited to be here, to enjoy it, but also work hard," she said "I want to challenge them so they don't give up" on subjects or content they may struggle with or believe they dislike.

Because she listens to input from students, Johnson has created an atmosphere that makes education enjoyable for them, Hankins said.

"This school is a community of learning and fun."

Johnson tabbed roughly 50 students, recommended by teachers, to be "ambassadors," and they've been invaluable, she said. These students received early peeks at Hammond Creek as it was being constructed, and they provide guidance to the rest of the student body.

They'll also be mentors to students, and lead the way in establishing "Tigers Pride," Johnson said. They created welcome posters, and they want designated student sections at sporting events to build camaraderie.

That will motivate athletes to compete, said Leola Bethel, who said, "I'm really looking forward to sports."

The ambassadors even volunteered to arrive early on the first day of school Aug. 10 to greet the rest of the student body, Johnson said.

"How can you say no to that (offer)?"

They've also emphasized that Hammond Creek ought to be student-centered, with student input on decisions, and the best way for that to happen is for teachers to truly know students, Johnson said. Then, school officials can make "opportunities available to every student," not just some students.

Sports play into that, as well, as several, including football, will have a sixth-grade team and a seventh-grade team, she said.

"With more teams, there are more chances for kids to grow as athletes."

Other sports will be blends of multiple grades, she said. Wrestling, for example, "you need someone at every weight class," so that sport needs to draw from a larger pool.

Opportunity extends beyond students to parents, as "an active PTO (parent-teacher organization) has started," with groups of parents focused on everything from beautifying the school with flowers, murals and landscaping to supporting students with special events like a readathon to aiding teachers with teacher appreciation endeavors, she said.

"Sometimes, (school personnel) talk about parents not volunteering, but we haven't given them anything to volunteer for, and we need to."

As was the case at Dalton Middle School, literacy will be a driving force at Hammond Creek.

"Literacy is an issue in this community, and we're not going to pretend it doesn't exist," Johnson said. "We're going to battle it every day, because literacy opens so many doors for (students)."

"Students need to read, think, write and talk in every class every day," Johnson said. "They need to read to learn and write to demonstrate their understanding."

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