The year is 1989. George H. Bush is president, Madonna’s Like a Prayer and Tone Loc’s Wild Thing dominate the airwaves, while Do the Right Thing drives audiences to movie theaters.
Over at Southwest DeKalb High School in Decatur, a young Angela Thomas is wrapping up her senior year with big plans to go to college, become a lawyer and bask in the prestige and financial security that comes with the profession. Some two decades later, she’s achieved success and is fully involved in a profession she loves, however, it isn’t law.
Now married and known as Angela Thomas Bethea, she finds herself back taking over as the new principal at the same school she graduated from.
“It’s very humbling for one,” said Bethea. “I just have more passion about being here. It’s my community, where I grew up. My parents still live around the corner. It makes me work harder. It’s like coming back home.”
DeKalb school system spokesman Dale Davis said it’s rare that a student returns to a school he or she attended as an administrator.
Angela Thomas who was a standout student during the 1980s, a SWD cheerleader, member of the Beta Club and student government now monitors a 1,842-member student body and staff of approximately 120. Bethea makes and enforces the rules, monitors instruction and interaction in the classroom and steers the school toward her goal of greater academic achievement. She has her work cut out for her.
Southwest DeKalb didn’t make AYP (Annual Yearly Performance, the federal measurement of school academic progress) this year for the first time in five years and putting measures in place to correct that is a priority, she said. Her first steps include targeting weaknesses at the school and improving instruction–especially in the area of math.
“What we have been doing is not working,” she pointed out.
While Bethea has a strong sense of pride about her days at SWD, nostalgia hasn’t prevented her from taking a tough love approach to her job. She’s instituted new rules that put an end to the before and after school hanging out in front of the school, where people who didn’t attend the school often mingled with students. Now there are only a few closely monitored places such as the cafeteria or the gym where students are allowed to be before and after classes.
“I want every child with an adult being supervised on a daily basis because too many things are happening with the students,” Bethea said.
And, she said, there’s no turning a blind eye to students leaving campus for lunch anymore, in fact, students are not allowed to go to their cars during the school day. She understands she isn’t terribly popular with seniors right now.
However she said it’s a safety issue, and the new measures will also help keep students focused on academics.
Bethea is no stranger to the DeKalb school system. After graduating from Spelman and realizing she wasn’t seriously interested in studying law, she got a teaching certificate and headed to the classroom. For eight and a half years she taught English at Stone Mountain High School and was assistant principal at Southwest DeKalb for four years. For a year she worked out of the system’s administrative offices as an area coordinator, which she said gave her a global view of how the entire system operates and the district’s expectations of principals and their schools.
“It’s my calling,” said Bethea, whose parents are retired from the Atlanta Public Schools (mom was a principal/dad an executive director). Her brother, Norman Thomas Jr., is assistant principal at Meadowview Elementary School in Atlanta.
Being principal at the school she once attended also means some of her current students’ parents used to be her classmates. Stranger still is that some of the teachers she now supervises taught at the school when she was a student such as Coach Buck Godfrey, science teacher Mary Gaddy and outgoing principal John Prince, who was a teacher at the school back in the ‘80s.
“We have mutual respect,” said Bethea of the relationship she has with faculty and staff. “We’re about to do some great things.”
And Bethea said she’s glad she was a good student and nice person while she was in school.
“I earned their respect even though I’m much younger,” she said.
As she walks the halls of Southwest DeKalb, recollections of her high school days occasionally flash through her mind.
“High school for me was a blast,” she said. “I had a great time. I loved football games, band. Southwest DeKalb was just a great place. We had a lot of school pride. We felt like we were elite because we went to Southwest DeKalb.”
And when the school day is done Bethea still has more nurturing to do at home. She’s also the mother of a 5-month-old.q