May 30—Lizzy Mateo was emotional on Thursday when she attended a reunion with current faculty at Morris Innovative High School as the school ends its run.
"I might cry, to be honest," Mateo said, because "of so many memories and so many friends."
School officials invited back alumni and former staff members for a reunion with the current faculty.
Mateo was in Morris Innovative's Newcomer Academy when she came to Dalton from Guatemala knowing "almost no English" in 2019.
"I'm just thinking about my last day here, when everybody was crying, because we were leaving," Mateo said. "It was a hard day, but" her time at Morris Innovative — where she picked up English quickly because "of the relationships teachers build with you" — was "really helpful."
Morris Innovative "means so much to me because of all the opportunities (I had)," said Nayeli Cruz, a 2018 Morris Innovative graduate who then went to Georgia Northwestern Technical College and is now a certified nursing assistant. At Morris Innovative, students weren't invisible to staff members, but, rather, "you were recognized, and they were there for you for everything."
There was "so much more individual attention at Morris," said Elijah Carney, a member of the class of 2019. "It was like a family here, and now it's closing, so why not come back" one final time?
"It's a shame to see it go," said Aaron Kilgore, Carney's stepbrother and fellow member of the class of 2019. "Dalton High is overcrowded, (but at Morris) teachers really invested time in you when you couldn't quite get it."
"Small classes, and teachers that cared about students and their families, this was it," said Ric Murry, who spent five years at Morris Innovative and helped start the Newcomer Academy for students new to the country. "And nothing was off the table, as long as it helped kids."
"We tried everything," from varying schedules to providing every student a technological device, in an attempt to find the best manner of educating students, said Mary Carlson, who spent five years as Morris Innovative's media specialist. "I remember, one of the first things (when I came here in 2012) was the big board with all the names of the students, and we wanted to make sure every student had at least one staff member who knew them personally."
In 2009, Dalton Public Schools transformed the high school credit recovery program into Morris Innovative High School, and "the school provided an opportunity for around 100 at-risk students to earn the credits they needed online with teacher support, allowing them to get back on track to graduate," according to Superintendent Tim Scott. In 2011, the school grew to almost 300 students, and while Dalton Public Schools required students behind on credits to attend, more and more students came by choice, drawn by the more-intimate environment and personal attention from teachers and staff.
Though many students started at Morris Innovative behind on credits, "they would (eventually) kick it into high gear, and that happened over and over again," said Carlson, now the media specialist at Park Creek School. "It was a fantastic place to be, and the trust the kids had (in us) was amazing."
In 2012, the school celebrated its first 34 graduates, and that same year, the school moved to the former Fort Hill School campus, according to Scott. During its existence, more than 700 students have graduated from Morris Innovative.
"We graduated kids no other high school in this area would have graduated, because we gave them the opportunity to prove themselves, and we provided the environment they needed to succeed," Murry said. "That is a legacy."
Beginning with the 2021-22 academic year, Dalton Public Schools students in grades six and seven will attend the new Hammond Creek Middle School, while students in grades eight and nine will attend Dalton Junior High School, which will be on the current Dalton Middle School campus. The Dalton Academy, also on the current Dalton Middle School campus — which is being extensively remodeled for these changes — will be one of two public high schools in the city, along with Dalton High, which will also be a 10-12 school. Morris Innovative will be closed, and students will choose between The Dalton Academy and Dalton High for their high school education.
Cruz was able to be more involved at Morris Innovative than she would have been at another high school, from playing soccer and volleyball to getting out into the community as part of the Translation Academy, she said.
"My best memories are the people I got to meet here."
"To me, Morris really was a family, and a lot of these kids really needed that," said Murry, who is now an English as a second or foreign language teacher at City Park School. He and several other staff members regularly "delivered furniture and beds to families, because it was about community here."