Grayson High School principal Dana Pugh is serious about making Grayson great. Pugh took over as principal halfway through the 2013-14 school year and spent his first few months on job observing. Coming from Bay Creek Middle School within the Grayson cluster, Pugh was familiar with many of the students patrolling the GHS hallways. And that insider’s perspective helped him set the agenda for his first full year.
“I knew we had to re-engage the student population,” Pugh says during an interview in his office. “The kids weren’t as energetic and enthusiastic as I knew they could be. So my first priority was to meet with our student leaders and ask them questions.”
Pugh solicited input from the school’s Gwinnett Student Leadership Team, a consortium of students with strong leadership skills. Pugh and his team sat down with the kids and asked them about direction, vision, and ideas to help turn the tide of student morale. Together, they instituted several changes designed to help students enjoy coming to school.
“I knew,” Pugh says, “that we could garner energy from our student leaders and harness their leadership to help restore the student body’s school spirit and academic performance.”
One of the biggest changes was the Big Board, a semester-long competition between the grade levels in areas of academics, community involvement and character. Pugh says it was an immediate hit.
“Imagine we’re having a concert at the school one night, so it’s an opportunity to come out and show community involvement in the sense of school spirit,” Pugh says. “So we hand out tickets according to grade level, with each level getting their own unique color. Then, when students come to the concert, they drop their ticket into their grade level’s collection box and we have someone count up the tickets. The grade level with the highest participation wins.”
Scores are tallied on a six-week basis and rewards are offered to the winners of each category.
“Food is a great reward,” says Carolyn Hixson, Pugh’s executive assistant. “You’d be surprised at how big winning sweet tea and lemonade is with the kids.”
Competition isn’t the only way to create camaraderie, however. Pugh and student leaders worked together to create a memorable first day for the 2015-16 school year, with the GHS drum line and band greeting students as they hopped off the bus. Faculty and staff were there to greet students with high-fives, and students attended specially designed seminars during the afternoon to help them set their own course for the academic year.
Additionally, Pugh allows student showcases during some lunch periods; students in orchestra, chorus or other programs are allowed to show off their talents and abilities before an audience of their peers, an audience they might not otherwise see.
“It’s their school,” Pugh says, “so they have to take ownership. My job is to make sure they know that, hey – I trust you, I believe in you, and I value your voice.”
Pugh isn’t just all about the students; he’s equally invested in making sure GHS teachers are just as engaged. To that end, he instituted a meeting on the second Monday of every month for teachers to get together and discuss their jobs.
“We have some teachers who model ‘best practices’ for the classroom and that helps expand our collective knowledge base,” Pugh says. “Additionally, the teachers can sit together and talk about what they’re seeing and hearing, which helps keep a silo mentality at bay.”
Pugh also works with his administrative staff to make sure the teachers are as free as possible to focus on their craft.
“We want teachers to be able to do what they love, which is teach,” Pugh says. “So we want to eliminate as many distractions as we can.”
Walking through the halls with Pugh, it’s easy to see how the changes have had an effect. Smiles are in abundance all over the school, and a huge green banner proudly proclaims, “Grayson is Great.” Students happily shake hands with their principal, and Pugh calls so many by name that I actually stop him and ask how many names of his 3,000 students he actually knows.
“Probably around 1,500,” he says after some thought. “But I work at it.”
“But don’t forget,” Hixson says with a laugh, “he knew a lot of these kids from his time at Bay Creek.”
Pugh laughs too. “That did give me an advantage, yes. But I still work at it.”
The hard work is paying off, and Pugh is excited for everyone to know about the school’s combined success. As part of preparation for this school year, the school printed several thousand cards for parents detailing the school’s accomplishments during the 2014-15 school year. A small sampling includes:
- JROTC Female Team – Regional Champion and State runner up
- DECA placed 3rd in Region
- Yearbook won the Silver Crown from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association
- 98 seniors received approximately $3.75 million in academic scholarships, including a Gates Millennium Scholarship recipient and two Broad prize scholarship recipients
- GHS was an AP Access, AP Merit and AP STEM school for 2015
- Varsity Girls soccer won State championship
- And the list goes on…
Pugh wants to keep the school’s achievements before the parents because he knows how essential parents are to any school’s success.
“We’ve seen great participation on the part of our parents,” Pugh says. “They’ve seen the positive changes we’ve made reflected in their students, and as a result we’ve seen greater involvement from the parents. We truly want our school and our community working together on many levels.”
To that end, Pugh has begun meeting with local business owners with the hope of establishing partnerships between the school and Grayson at large. Pugh cites several areas where local businesses can make an impact—Miss Grayson pageant, Booster Clubs, PTSA—and says there are plenty of great opportunities for business owners willing to invest in the next generation.
“There is so much talent here,” Pugh says. “It’s my job to make sure we take away any inhibitors to success so everyone can be their best.”
Speaking of the next generation, when asked how long he intends to stay at Grayson, Pugh smiles.
“I’m here for the long haul,” he says. “There is nowhere else I want to be.”