- By Michael Dorn
- November 1st, 2001
Miller Middle School in Macon, Ga., had the reputation of being a bad school. Consistently ranked last in the county for middle school academics, with test scores far below the state average, Miller was unquestionably a failing school. The safety picture was just as bleak. Fights, gang activity and serious disciplinary infractions were a normal part of the school scene. Gun and drug violations, and even incidents where students had been stabbed, were a less regular but periodic problem. The school would almost remind you of the school depicted in the movie Stand By Me.
Having attended this dysfunctional school in the 1970’s, I can personally attest to the deplorable state of affairs. After I was appointed chief of police for the district in 1989, I found the school was even more out of control than it had been a decade before. During the first week of school that fall, a gang member who was a drop-out entered a classroom, pulled a gun and threatened to shoot a student in front of a teacher and his victim’s classmates. The next week, the same thug entered the school’s gymnasium, shoved a student against the wall and put the barrel of his weapon in the student’s mouth. The following day, we located and arrested the perpetrator, but the school was still a very dangerous place. The veteran principal at the school could cite an endless list of reasons why the school was and always would be in this pathetic condition.
When a new superintendent was appointed a few years later, he eliminated the position of community affairs director held at that time by Dr. Martha Jones, promoted the principal of Miller Middle School, and appointed Jones as his replacement. Jones felt, and the superintendent later confirmed, that this move was made in an attempt to get her to retire or move to another school system. When faced with such adversity, many people roll over. Others just show up for work each day marking time until retirement. But truly exceptional people refuse to cave in. Dr. Martha Jones is one of those remarkable people.
Even though her building resembled a run-down fortress in the middle of a dilapidated high-crime area, she did not give up. Faced with a burned-out staff, trying to educate some of the more challenging youth in the community, Jones decided to make a stand. She could not seem to understand that the school was destined to failure, as her predecessor and countless others had maintained. She was determined to succeed regardless of the seemingly overwhelming situation.
Jones will be retiring from the district and embarking on a new career a week after I am writing this column. She will be sorely missed, for her effect on thousands of students and hundreds of staff members has been nothing short of profound. Under her leadership, Miller Middle School became the flagship of the school system. The level of safety at the school has been astounding. A new middle school has been built to replace the one she inherited and she has used it well. The school experiences only one to two fights each year, and no student has been caught with a gun on the campus in more than six years (and with the strict dress code and random weapons screening program, a violator would be very likely to be caught). The school has no fence, no security cameras and is an extremely open and inviting school full of vibrant colors. Upon my numerous visits to the school in recent years, I have not seen one student’s shirttail out or one piece of trash on the floor, and have not heard a single profane utterance from a student. The school stands as an oasis in the middle of a decayed neighborhood where gunshots are not at all an uncommon sound at night.
How has the school done in the area of academics? It is now ranked first in the county for test scores, has been named a Georgia School of Excellence and was chartered as the world’s first Core Knowledge Middle school. The school had to turn away nearly 400 magnet school applicants last year, and is equally popular as a place to work for teachers in the district. The school was recently featured in a special on American education on PBS and has been visited by educators and law enforcement officials from across the nation as well as Israel, Germany, and other countries.
As Jones, her dedicated staff, supportive parents and excellent students have demonstrated, any school can be great place to learn. Dr. Martha Jones will be missed by many. As a former literature student of hers, I know she has been an inspiration to me. There are other examples from around the nation of incredible schools in places where we are conditioned to expect mediocrity. It is a good thing that their principals, teachers and children do not know that they cannot succeed.
Michael S. Dorn is the School Safety Specialist for the Office of the Governor — Georgia Emergency Management Agency. He is one of the nation’s top school safety experts. His next book, School/Law Enforcement Partnerships: A Guide to Police Work in Schools, is due for publication soon.
Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at www.safehavensinternational.org.