Roberts Elementary principal emphasizes college planning

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Dion Jones, principal at Roberts Elementary, waits with students in the car line outside of the school earlier this week. Jones led the way in opening the new school last year.

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Dion Jones, principal at Roberts Elementary, waits with students in the car line outside of the school earlier this week. Jones led the way in opening the new school last year.

SUWANEE -- Dion Jones is passionate about his job as principal of Roberts Elementary School. For most of his life, he knew he wanted a career that would make a difference in people's lives, and he wanted to do something he loved. He found out what he loved, but that was after he graduated from Western Kentucky University with a major in business/retail.

At Western Kentucky, Jones got his first real experience working closely with children, and it changed his life.

"I worked with the Boys and Girls Clubs (of America) while I was in college," Jones said. After that, he was a substitute teacher for a year, just to see what it was like.

Still not firmly set on his career path, he moved to Gwinnett County in 1993 to start a career in the corporate world.

"I came here with $387 in my pocket and a $150 car note due in two weeks," Jones said laughing.

Having no family in the county, he stayed with a couple of friends for a few months until he could get himself established. Soon he learned his calling wasn't business; it was education.

"I knew I loved working with children, and that was perfect. As a teacher, I could make a difference and work with kids, both things that were very important to me."

For a second time, Jones became a substitute teacher -- this time in Gwinnett -- and within a year was offered a teaching position at Lilburn Elementary, where he stayed for five years. In 2001, he moved to Craig Elementary as an assistant principal, and in 2004, Jones was named principal of Rockbridge Elementary School. When Roberts Elementary opened in 2010, Jones took the helm as principal of that school, which has an enrollment of about 720.

"We developed a mission statement, but we waited a year so that we could really know the students, faculty and even the community," Jones said.

Based on a school crest Jones and his team created in 2010, the school's mission statement was developed in 2011. Incorporating words like "knowledge, leadership, service and community," Jones says the statement is accurate and revealing. "We stress all four of those qualities to the students in everything we do here."

"When I was at Rockbridge, we saw a trend of students dropping out of school around the eighth grade," Jones said. As a result, the young principal developed the Kids to College program, an initiative that puts college on every student's radar in the early school years. As a part of the program, every teacher's name over the classroom door at Roberts also includes the college that teacher attended. Hallways in the school are named after Georgia colleges and universities. College mascots adorn the entryways and hallways. There is a weekly focus on a specific college, and near the end of every student's 5th grade year, a field trip to a Georgia university is the focus and reward for college planning.

In May, the fifth-grade class will tour the University of Georgia. There are plans under way to roll out the Kids to College program throughout the Suwanee school cluster.

Passionate about putting college within reach of young students, Jones and the Roberts Elementary faculty tie college plans to behavioral choices and academic efforts. Through the efforts of "Achiever McBeaver" and the College Crew (part of the school's daily announcements) and the Learner's Creed (recited daily), college is at the forefront of the Roberts philosophy.

"It's a culture around here," said Jones, and it's a culture that parents appreciate. "Often, I'll meet a parent out in the community or one will walk in my office and tell me how much they appreciate the school and our outstanding teachers. They want to help us succeed in our efforts."

The Suwanee community is just as supportive of the new school.

"I have met with city leaders, and we've talked about the future of the school and of the city. Stability and managed growth are key to a school's success," Jones said, adding that community business partners donate time, money and materials to the fledgling school.

One of the projects is most proud is a partnership with the owner of Crimson Academy daycare, and the building of a school in the African nation of Rwanda. The school has been built, and a few students are already attending, but they are in great need of supplies.

"Our students are collecting school supplies to send to the students of this new school," Jones said. "We are helping them understand that there are four walls and a few chairs, but the students are in need of other supplies. As part of a global community, our students are helping theirs."

A pen pal program is also part of this assistance effort, and Jones hopes to set up a Skype (video/audio) session between both schools soon, so that the students can meet.

Not quite two years old, the school has been awarded the Bronze Award for being one of the highest performing schools in the state.

"Our goal ultimately is to be a School of Excellence," Jones said.