DALTON, Ga. — Dalton High School's staff and students have grown accustomed to hearing all announcements from Steve Bartoo prefaced by the phrase, "It is a beautiful, glorious Catamount day." That will be notably absent next year, as the principal — and nearly 30-year fixture at the school — is retiring, effective at the end of this month.
"I'm leaving very fulfilled with what I've done, and I'm very thankful for this school system and all the opportunities I've been given," he said. "I love teens, and I love working with high school kids."
Bartoo, 56, took over as Dalton High's principal in 2013 following six years as assistant principal, replacing Debbie Freeman. He's spent 29 years at Dalton High.
"I'm very grateful and very thankful for all the opportunities provided to me" at the school, Bartoo said as tears welled in his eyes. "I will miss this tremendously, I really will."
A winding road
Bartoo received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in special education from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and a specialist’s degree in educational leadership from Berry College.
"As a young guy, I had absolutely no money" after college, so Bartoo went to work in the system that at the time offered the highest pay in Georgia, DeKalb County. He worked there for a couple of years as a junior high special education teacher before a special education position opened up at Dalton High, he said.
"I've taught every disability group there is, just about, and the mantra that has kept me going all these years is: 'Every single kid is worth every bit of your energy,'" Bartoo said.
Bartoo, who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, but moved with his family to the Chattanooga area when he was in ninth grade, found his passion for educating youth while in college, when he spent several years working at a YMCA Camp in Polk County, Tennessee, he said.
"I really enjoyed working with the kids, especially those who had some issues, who needed a little more love and time," Bartoo said.
With a father who was a college professor and a mother who was a school teacher, one might expect Bartoo's educator path to have been almost predetermined, but that wasn't the case. In fact, his father initially urged his sons to seek more lucrative professions.
Bartoo couldn't decide his future, so he actually left college for a year to assist his aunt and uncle's two young sons in Albuquerque, which was "a great experience." When he returned to school, his father set up a meeting for him with Earl Davis, head of his university's special education department, he said. Bartoo visited Davis at his farm in Catoosa County, and "he gave me most of his day."
At the end of their time together, Davis counseled Bartoo toward the special education vocation, and he found "a real satisfaction in working with (that population)," he said.
"It's very rewarding, and teaching (students) with the most significant disabilities has probably been the most rewarding thing I've done," Bartoo said.
Bartoo's mother "was always really supportive of anything my brothers and I wanted to do," and his father ultimately came around to be one of his most devout backers, he said.
"My dad thinks this is the best thing I could have ever chose," Bartoo said.
Eventually, Bartoo felt he could have "a larger impact on a larger group of students" as an administrator, but he also wanted to remain in Dalton, he said.
"We were ingrained; my wife, Vicki, is a teacher at Dalton Middle School — she's retiring this year, too — our boys grew up here, and they both graduated from Dalton High," he said.
He also served longer than he expected when he accepted the job.
"I thought I'd go about five years as principal," he said. "This is the most challenging work I've done."
'On all the time'
"As principal, you're on all the time, and you never take that hat off," Bartoo explained. "You're always in that role, and it takes a lot of energy to do it."
"What I learned quickly in this job is that you can't make everybody happy, and they'll let you know about it, but that goes with the territory, and the lens I made every decision through was what is the very best overall for kids at our school," he said. "I'll miss the kids tremendously, and I'll miss the relationships I've built here."
Bartoo will be succeeded by Stephanie Hungerpiller, who joined Dalton Public Schools in 2016 as an assistant principal at Dalton High School, and previously was a principal and an assistant principal with Whitfield County Schools. Bartoo always put the needs of students, staff and his school above all else, said Tim Scott, superintendent of Dalton Public Schools. Bartoo focused on "what is good for the school and his students, and the school improved" during his tenure.
Bartoo did have to learn to delegate more as principal.
"As an assistant principal, you're the operations person, the one who gets stuff done, (but) I didn't want to micromanage" as principal, he said. "I have a great team, not a bunch of 'Yes' people, and (when you're principal) not every fire is a fire you have to put out."
Bartoo wasn't one to remain in the office, either.
"I felt I was very visible with our kids and interacted with them every day," he said. "I made myself available."
Now, he's ready for "some different stresses in my life," perhaps returning to teaching in some capacity, he said. "I would like to stay in public education."
"I enjoy being a teacher, and I could see myself doing that again, because I want to work," he added. "I'm not a person to sit at home."
His proudest accomplishment as principal was shifting the high school to a block schedule with 'A' and 'B' Days, rather than the eight-period day he inherited.
That eight-period day with 50-minute periods "was a track meet every day," especially for those taking advance classes, but the new hybrid model affords time for advisement and additional assistance, he said. Initially, the change was difficult for faculty members who had never taught 90-minute classes, but now, a couple of years in, "we're rocking and rolling."
He also coached baseball, football, swimming and wrestling at the high school.
Swimming was "the most interesting one," at least in terms of how he landed the gig, he recalled with a chuckle. The boys swim team won a state title, but the coach left Dalton; at the same time, Bartoo had offered to teach a swimming element for physical education classes, because he knew the basics from his time as a lifeguard at the YMCA camp and at his college's pool.
Because he "knew something about swimming," he was tabbed as the swimming coach by the athletic director, even though "I knew nothing about competitive swimming," he said with a laugh. Fortunately, he hired the club swim team's coach, an expert in the sport, as his assistant, and "he taught me a lot."
Bartoo's willingness to tackle any responsibility was a promise he'd made in his first Dalton High job interview.
"I said I'd help out in any way I can, and if I didn't know how to do it, I'd learn," he said. "Honestly, I wish more people in interviews (I conduct) had that" attitude.
Bartoo is "a firm believer that assessment has a role in instruction, but I don't think high-stakes testing has a place in accountability systems," he said. "We are in the human being business, dealing with people who are all different."
Consequently, he hopes his staff continues to remember "there are only two things you can control as a public educator: the relationships you have with students, and the work you ask them to do in your classroom," he said. "Teachers I know who have the most impact on their students concentrate on the two things they can control, and they leave the rest of the noise out there."