In nearly 18 years at Brookwood High, Debra Dees has become a fixture at the school, first as a teacher and coach, and recently as an assistant principal and principal.
So when her departure was announced this week because she’s becoming an assistant superintendent with Gwinnett County Public Schools, Dees called the decision bittersweet.
“The relationships I’ve built in this community will follow me the rest of my life,” Dees wrote in an email to the Daily Post. “These folks are my family and I love them dearly.”
Dees was one of four principals to accept promotions that were announced on Thursday at a regular meeting of the Gwinnett County Board of Education. North Gwinnett High Principal Ed Shaddix will also be an assistant superintendent, as will Riverside Elementary Principal Craig Barlow, each at their respective levels.
Peachtree Ridge High Principal Kevin Tashlein will be the associate superintendent for school improvement and operations.
Superintendent/CEO J. Alvin Wilbanks said at the meeting that the ability of the district to fill these positions speaks to its depth of talent, and referred to the eighth installment of its aspiring principal program.
“It is with a great amount of pleasure and pride to say we have a deep pool with which to pull from,” Wilbanks said.
The wide-ranging restructuring includes a renaming of four of the six central office divisions that are now grouped into two teams: operational concerns and teaching and learning. It’s the first formal restructuring since April, 2010, district spokeswoman Sloan Roach said.
The restructuring also changed the area superintendent positions, which were cluster-specific, to level-specific assistant superintendents. Four assistant superintendents will be assigned to the elementary school level, two at the middle school level and two at the high school level.
The previous cluster superintendents who will continue in their roles as assistant superintendents are Gwen Tatum and Nancy Martin at the middle school level, and Joe Ahrens, Kelli McCain, and Calvin Watts for elementary schools.
Cathy Moore, dean of Georgia Gwinnett College’s School of Education, said GCPS is facing challenges that include enrollment growth and how to maximize resources.
“I think there really is a value in (restructuring),” Moore said. “Any good organization, a school or otherwise, wants to function at the highest level they can. In the case of a school district, you always want your focus on your No. 1 goal: students. They’re constantly looking to see how to meet students’ needs.”
Moore added that the new level-specific assistant superintendents brings people together who have something in common.
“What it will do is help facilitate team functioning, you’ll have people at the table who have like issues,” she said. “People at elementary school and high school don’t have common issues.”
The timing of the move was an attempt to be proactive, Moore said.
“We’re at a point in the school year right now to where things are pretty settled down, students are functioning in classrooms, instruction is going on, having this change now allows them to make transitions with all the moving parts in place,” Moore said. “Even though the children are out in the summer, summers are still busy for school administrators, so there’s not really a down time for school administration.”
In a news release, district officials said the reorganization was done in a way to better support local schools.
“My hope is that the average teacher or administrator will feel the support of people who know what it’s like to have been a principal in Gwinnett County during the current age of accountability,” Dees wrote.
For the local communities losing a leader, the transition is just beginning. All four principals had been at their schools since at least 2008, and in Dees’ case, since 1996.
She couldn’t list all the memories, Dees said, but one of her favorites was the Friday morning administration staff meetings.
“I have never laughed so much and accomplished so much work with any other group of people,” she wrote. “They are truly professionals who care deeply about their work. My hope is that I can take some of what they have taught me to help lead and improve all the high schools in Gwinnett County.”
Barlow, who has been the principal at Riverside since 2001, wrote in a letter to school families that he had mixed feelings about the promotion.
“This is a great promotion for me personally, and I am very excited about the opportunity to work with teachers, leaders and schools across the county,” Barlow wrote. “However, this change will be bittersweet, as being your principal at Riverside Elementary has been one of the highlights of my life, both professionally and personally.”
While Shaddix called his promotion a dream come true, he also said it was bittersweet. The former Shiloh High athletics director has been North’s principal since 2008.
“I can honestly say that this school community represents what is right in public education today,” Shaddix wrote in a letter addressed to the North Gwinnett High School family.
The promotion and its timing were both unexpected for Tashlein, he wrote in a letter to the community, which was written with mixed emotions.
“I want to thank you for an amazing experience,” Tashlein wrote. “My family and I will always cherish and love this community for providing such a warm welcome and particularly for the wonderful memories and numerous success stories we have created together. It is my deeply held belief that public schools transform student lives as we work to help all students to reach their potential.”