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The pride of Dacula High School

I experienced a lot of things in my stint as Dacula High School's Principal for a Day last week. But checking e-mail was not one of them.

That's the type of guy Donnie Nutt, the school's principal, is - too courteous to go through e-mails while in my company. And I appreciate that, even if it kept me from sharing in some great news Nutt and the school received during my visit.

I was at Dacula High on Wednesday as part of a joint venture between Gwinnett County Public Schools and the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce that allows business and community leaders to spend a day with a local principal. The program coincided with American Education Week, which the schools celebrated in other ways as well.

One of those things at Dacula was boxed lunches for all teachers. They were handed out during my visit, prompting this observance: The quickest way to a teacher's heart is through his or her stomach. Had Nutt erased the national debt, he wouldn't have been thanked as much as he was that day for providing sandwiches.

But there are plenty of other reasons to like Nutt, an affable guy who is as Dacula as the school's falcon mascot. A 1975 graduate of Dacula, he's been principal of his alma mater since 2000 and lives on part of the land his father purchased in Dacula in 1969.

For Nutt, the love of Dacula is a family affair. His wife, Darenda, is the principal's secretary at Dacula Middle, daughter Brittany teaches at Dacula Elementary and his son Casey is a junior at Dacula High.

The hours he puts in - he rises at 4:30 a.m. each day and sometimes his Fridays don't end until Saturday morning - wouldn't be possible without his family's support. But he's managed to create a family-style atmosphere at the high school, empowering his staff by giving it plenty of responsibility.

That management style has paid off - nearly 30 people who have worked for Nutt have gone on to work for the county office or become principals or assistant principals at other schools.

"I'm kind of like a proud parent watching those guys go on," Nutt said. "I'm very proud of the leadership work we do here with kids and adults."

That pride showed during my tour of the school. Whether it was introducing me to administrators, letting me observe teachers and classes or showing me different facilities, you could tell how proud Nutt is of the school.

He'll be the first to tell you that it's because of the students and the staff. Several times during my visit, he took time to tell a teacher he had been bragging on him or her, but those same people will tell you Nutt and his leadership personality deserve the kudos.

"He's even-keeled. He's not going to get too high and he's not going to get too low," said Kevin Maloof, Dacula's head football coach and athletic director. "He's the steadying force behind this school."

You don't have to shadow a principal long to learn the immense responsibility of the job. A large high school is like a business - the kid business, so to speak - and the principal is the CEO.

But in addition to educating the 2,350 students, Nutt is also responsible for feeding them - during four, 22-minute periods - taking care of their medical needs and getting them to and from school. A staff of nearly 200, which Nutt oversees, is needed to accomplish this. It's not exactly a walk in the park.

However, Nutt handles it with aplomb. Whether he's complimenting a teacher or chiding a student who is lollygagging in the hall, he keeps the same calm, demeanor.

Some things do get to him, though. During my visit, he was given a thank you note from a teacher and a student. I could tell it touched him, and he alluded to it at the end of the day when I asked him what he enjoys most about his job.

"It's those things when you think you're just doing your job, and people say 'thank you,'" Nutt said. "Then you reflect on it and think maybe you are making a difference."

After that exchange, he spent more time touting the school and how hard the teachers and students work. Evidence of it came later, after I had left.

That's when Nutt opened the e-mail, the one that said Dacula High School is one of eight schools in the state that received awards for both greatest gains and highest performance on state testing this year. It's quite an accomplishment, and Nutt forwarded it to me.

Nutt said he wished he had seen it while I was there so I, as the principal for a day, could have celebrated with them. But that's not surprising. It's just the type of guy Donnie Nutt is.

E-mail Todd Cline at todd.cline@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Tuesdays.