Bridges takes the Talon lead

As the students and faculty of Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy returned to campus for the 2018-2019 school year, many of them were blindsided by the monumental changes that had occurred over the summer. The change that will most directly affect our daily lives here at Thomas Jefferson is the stepping down of Gary Blake and, more specifically, the stepping up of Dianna Bridges.

A lot of questions have been floating around the campus since the beginning of this school year about Bridges and the current state of affairs at Thomas Jefferson, and students are curious. Bridges’ impression of Thomas Jefferson speaks a lot about what she learned in the year she was working as the school’s human resource director.

“I just think I love the whole atmosphere here with the students and the staff. It seems like just a happy place to be. It seems like a place where students enjoy learning and teachers enjoy working. You know, I’ve been in a lot of schools, but this reminds me of my beginning days. Kind of a family type of atmosphere. And that’s actually why I wanted to be a principal again, because I’ve been the principal at two different schools, and this one reminds me of all the great things about being in education.” This she answered, seeming excited and prepared to dive into the rest of this year headfirst.

Bridges began her career at King’s Mountain High School, in her hometown. She worked at King’s Mountain for nineteen years as a PE teacher, volleyball coach, basketball coach, guidance counselor and an assistant principal. She then moved to Burns Middle School, where she worked as a principal. After leaving Burns Middle, she became the principal at Shelby High School.

Drama teacher Jonathan Foust knows well Bridges’ strength as a principal.

“She offered me a position in 2007, but I couldn’t accept because I had made a commitment for that year. So then she called me back in 2008 and when she offered me that job she said, “If you don’t say yes this year, I’m just going to call you back every year until you do. She demands excellence from herself and from others… And from my experience, she usually gets it. ”

“[I] Wouldn’t take ‘no’ from his [Logan Foust] dad; I hired him as an English teacher at Shelby High,” Bridges said.

Bridges still lives on the family land that she was raised on. She is a self-proclaimed “country girl,” someone who is not scared of hard work. This shows thoroughly in her devotion to education and her track record with the students with whom she has worked. She coached a basketball team that won the 3A Basketball State Championship in 1998, got her Master’s degree in school counseling, got another Master’s in school administration, and got to work climbing the ranks so that she could become a principal.

Whenever a teacher or administrator joins the staff at Thomas Jefferson after working at traditional public schools, students are naturally curious about what the new staffer sees in Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy students.

“I think [what is different is] their commitment to learning. I mean, some still make poor decisions, but what I really have a lot of respect for is their appreciation for learning. You come from families that are very supportive and expect a quality education. I’ve had those [students] at the schools that I’ve been at, but there’s just a much smaller percentage of those kind of kids there. I’m not talking about twenty percent of the kids here, I’m talking about ninety percent of the kids, you know? So it makes a difference. It makes this job fun.”

An undercurrent of discussion about new safety precautions is part of Bridges’ commitment to making TJ a safer place for students and staff. [See related story] These precautions signal Bridges’ balance between safety and comfort. In fact, school safety was one of the first things she addressed on campus.

“Well, I’ve tried to make the school safer. It’s been uncomfortable. It makes it a little cumbersome; this is not the easiest campus to make safe. I do think that the nature of society today is something we have to pay attention to, and unfortunately there are some inconveniences that come with that. I’d like to see new doors put in, where we could open them with badges and things like that, but it’s very expensive, and we’re trying to build a new school. But to make it more comfortable for the students, I want the students to get to know me. I’m trying to get out there. It’s going to just take time to develop relationships and for them to trust and know that I’m here.

“I’ve always prided myself on being an instructional leader, and I’ve also prided myself on making decisions on what’s best for kids, what’s best for our students. I think we’re in the kid business. And sometimes, if you’re not careful, the adults will make decisions based on what’s best for the adults here. But we need to stay focused on what’s best for the kids here when we make decisions. I’m trying to talk to the staff a lot about that, put some things in place that will guide our decisions to make sure that the ones we make are what’s best for you guys. I want to build relationships with you guys. One of the things I’m really struggling with is that I’m trying to get the seniors to do a senior t-shirt, but nobody wants to do it! It’s not really about the design. I can get a graphics person to do the design. It’s about… What kind of statement defines this senior class? What kind of theme defines this senior class? We can pull the graphics together to support it, but I mean, do you guys want the same thing that everybody else is having? I believe every single class has its own personality.”

Most students are concerned about the changes in administration at TJ this year; they want to know the school they love and the education it promises will continue, and the school will last, thrive and grow.

“Well, I think change under my leadership will come slowly. If change is even necessary. What I think my experience can bring to this school is maybe a little structure that I thought was kind of missing here, and I just think that makes the school run more efficiently and effectively. But as far as curriculum changes, not really, because you’re doing so well! Why would I come in here and make changes? My first year will be about learning, and getting it down pat about what are the great things and what we are doing well, and about where we feel like we may need to do a little bit better, and then how we can do that. But I don’t want to come in and make changes.

“I want to hold it where it’s at, and one of the things is having quality staff. We’re only going to be as good as our teachers. So, giving them some love so they’ll want to stay here and keep working. Tell them how much I appreciate them, because I do! So, loving on our staff a little bit and making sure we keep those good quality teachers here, and when they do have to leave, making sure we find good quality teachers to replace them. Sometimes you get these wonderful teachers and then they retire. I’ve seen retirements really hurt schools before. Sometimes you can’t replace them at the same level.”

Bridges said she hopes to build the performing arts program in the middle school so it feeds the high school program.

“That is one of the things I do want to change here that I think would enhance the school. I’ve talked to the staff about it and I think that they’re all on board. And that’s to build our performing arts program better at the middle school so that it opens the doors to the high school. Our athletics, they’re coming around putting good coaches on our teams, quality people, we’ve tried to improve that. And our athletics are floating around pretty good, but we haven’t helped our performing arts get to where it needs to be. And I think that if we could set that on fire, people would just demand to come here. We lose a lot of people when they come to the high school, and you’ll have that, but we’re missing that aspect. And it blends in well with the classical curriculum.”

Bridges explained the differentiation between the middle and the high school she’d already put into place. She hopes that the high schoolers will enjoy not having to share every bit of privilege they are given with the middle schoolers. When she was made aware that the word hadn’t gotten out for the high school spirit shirt last Friday, she immediately called Assistant Principal Michael Fair to get an announcement out about the special attire day.

Bridges told us that she likes suspense books, and that she doesn’t watch a lot of movies because she prefers to spend time with her family and her grandchildren. She loves to hang out with her family. Bridges and her husband have been married for thirty-seven years, and she says he is her “best buddy in the whole world.” She has three boys, all of whom are married. Two are teachers and are married to teachers, and her eldest son has two adorable children whom Bridges retired in order to raise for four and a half years when their mother was struggling with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS). Her middle son, Matt, is the athletic director at Kings Mountain High School. His wife is a middle school PE teacher who played college soccer, while Matt played college baseball. They got married last summer. Her son Brandon joined the Air Force and has been with it for twelve years. He is currently stationed in Anchorage, Alaska. He has two daughters whom Bridges is looking forward to seeing on her next trip up to the frozen North.

“Is there something about yourself that you want everybody to know?” I asked her.

“Outside of my family, my favorite people are high school kids. I’ve always been able to connect to high school kids. I hope with time you guys will let me in and let me connect. I’ve always been able to have a good time with high school kids. I’ve always participated in things at the school as a teacher, coach, counselor, and even as a principal. I’m doing what I think I was put on this Earth to do.

“I think I hit a homerun in my career, so I’m happy to be here. I’m glad to be here. We’ve got a lot of things going on right now, you know, with Mr. Maimone. I don’t replace Mr. Maimone. I’m replacing Mr. Blake. I just want all that adult stuff to stay adult stuff, and we can try to protect our school the best we can. I miss Mr. Maimone, too. We just have to go on keeping the school great.

“I think that all the adults were starting to get a little distracted with some things, and I noticed that I was in HR. I saw some of the things going on with the adults around here impacting what we’re supposed to be about. So I’m staying out of that mess, and I’m staying right here. I’m staying focused on you guys.”

Bridges said she hopes to bring some of her high school self into her new position here at TJ.

“Now, I was a good student in high school, because I worked hard. [. . .] I set my goals high. A part of it was that my parents always made me feel like I could attain that. I’m thankful I had those kinds of parents. I just want kids to set their goals high and not sell themselves short. I always wanted to go to Carolina. That was my goal. And I didn’t qualify, I’ll tell you guys this, I didn’t qualify for the AG back then. That was “Academically Gifted,” and I was a straight-A student, but they wouldn’t let me in back in those days, because I didn’t ‘qualify.’ I had a great teacher. Dixie Dunn was her name, and she said, ‘Dianna, they can’t keep you out of AP.’ She knew I was trying to get in, ‘They can keep you out of the honors program, but they can’t keep you out of AP.’ So I started taking those AP courses, and having somebody like her to encourage me.

“So, I just would say that kids here don’t need to sell themselves short. They need to set high goals. Going to Carolina was the best thing for me, it worked well for me, but it’s not for everybody. It’s a big school. Even bigger now. You learn to advocate for yourself, and do those kinds of things. But I would just say, you don’t know how valuable this time is. You’re never going to get these times back. So I want you to enjoy them and take advantage of them, and I want you to use them to open doors of opportunities, not close them. And that’s actually what you do in high school. You either open them up, or you shut them. And if you shut them you’ll have to work really hard to get them open again. But this is just a great place, and I’m just tickled to be here. And I’m tickled that you three came to talk to me. Beats talking to Mr. Fair every day, don’t tell him I said that… You guys are why I’m here. I kept noticing last year, and I was telling my husband, ‘Man, there’s some good kids there, there are some really good kids there. I see good things going on.’ Then Mr. Maimone would stop by and I’d say, ‘Tell me about this classical education? Tell me about this rhetoric class you’ve got going on?’ And oh, Lord, he would. So I really became interested with what was going on here. I was as shocked as anybody when Mr. Blake said he resigned. I was like “You did what?” Then I thought, “Huh, well maybe… Just maybe…” So, I was tickled to get the opportunity. Thank y’all.”

“I just think I love the whole atmosphere here with the students and the staff. It seems like just a happy place to be. It seems like a place where students enjoy learning and teachers enjoy working.””

— Dianna Bridges