Dalton High School has a new person in the principal's chair this year for the first time since 2013, but it's a familiar figure: Stephanie Hungerpiller, who was the school's assistant principal since 2016.
Visitors routinely comment about "how well-behaved Dalton High students are, (and) that's because the culture of this school is so positive," Hungerpiller said. "We have dedicated teachers with a passion for students who give it their all, and I'm blessed to be part of this school."
Hungerpiller began her teaching career in 1994 in South Carolina, and before coming to Dalton High she was a principal at Valley Point Middle School and assistant principal at Coahulla Creek High School in Whitfield County Schools. She earned her bachelor's degree in elementary education from what is now Coker University, her master's in K-12 education from what is now Tusculum University, and her educational specialist degree in leadership and supervision from Lincoln Memorial University.
When she started college, Hungerpiller was unsure of her eventual career, so she declared a business major, but she quickly realized her passion was English, and she switched majors.
For a time, she considered law school, but "I really wanted to be an advocate for children," which led to the elementary education degree, she said. Unfortunately for the Hartsville-native, her home district, Darlington County Schools, was in the middle of a hiring freeze when she graduated, so she launched her teaching career roughly 30 minutes from her hometown at a junior high school with eighth-grade science, which was possible because she was certified to teach any subject K-8 based on her collegiate studies.
"It's funny how opportunities open up," because she noticed she preferred older students to elementary, she said. "Sometimes, what you think you want to do is not what you're meant to do, (but) doors open you didn't expect that lead you to where you're supposed to be."
Her husband of 20-plus years, David, an employee of Sonoco Products, was transferred to this region, so "we moved to Dalton in June of 2000, and we just fell in love with the community," she said. "I'd never lived outside of South Carolina, but this is a very welcoming place and a very happy place."
"We felt it was a great place to raise our family, and we loved the schools," she added. Her husband had opportunities through his job to relocate, but "this is where we want to be, and we plan to stay here.''
She spent 10 years teaching at North Whitfield Middle School, and during her time in Whitfield County Schools, "I had lots of opportunities to grow as a teacher and leader," she said. "I still miss the folks I worked with, but I've built great relationships here."
Because Whitfield County Schools and Dalton Public Schools were on different schedules, Hungerpiller missed some chances for memories with her son, Tyler, who now resides in Charlotte, and her daughter, Sloan, now a student at the University of Georgia, so when the assistant principal slot opened up at Dalton High, she jumped at it.
"I got to be with (Sloan) for her last two years of high school," including her graduation, which was a highlight, she said. So often, educators focus completely on their students, but they also need to "be sure to tend to your family, because you don't want to regret missing those moments."
She was also acquainted with then-principal Steve Bartoo and felt they'd mesh. Bartoo, who retired this summer after serving as Dalton High's principal for seven years, routinely empowered his cabinet, including assistant principals like Hungerpiller.
"I didn't want to micromanage," Bartoo explained in May. "I have a great team, not a bunch of 'Yes' people, and not every fire is a fire you have to put out."
A successful principal must collaborate extensively with his or her team, Hungerpiller seconded. "You simply can't cover everything that needs to be covered as one person, and together we achieve more."
She's grateful that as assistant principal both at Dalton High School and while she was in Whitfield County Schools, she was able to "get my hands in a lot of different things, because that's how you learn," she said. "You need to learn all facets of the school."
Hungerpiller has taken lessons from each leader she's served under, and "I believe we are lifelong learners," she said. "I learn from my administrative team all the time, and I think they learn from me."
She's also learned through her decades in teaching and administration the importance of "taking some time for yourself, because you have to find a balance," she said. In her case, exercise is often a way "to clear my head."
A new look
As enervating as this school year will be due to the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, next fall will be challenging, as well, as the system shuffles grades and buildings. Hammond Creek, a building for students in grades six and seven, will open, as will Dalton Junior High for grades eight and nine, and The Dalton Academy, a magnet school for grades 10-12 — the latter two schools will both be on the campus of the current Dalton Middle School. Dalton High will also shift to grades 10-12.
While The Dalton Academy will offer a more intimate environment and a focus on certain career pathways, Dalton High "has a great reputation for excellence, and we have our traditions" forged over more than 100 years, Hungerpiller said. "We've also started a fine arts academy, and our engineering pathway is" enviable.
The Fine Arts Academy ranges from band, choir and drama to painting, drawing and pottery, and Hungerpiller sees it as an incubator for creative students. Ideally, it'll soon grow to a point where students in the academy could write a play other students would then produce with the assistance of music from still other academic students.
The engineering program excels at asking students to devise solutions, Missie McKinney, an assistant principal at Dalton High who will be the principal of Dalton Junior High when it opens in 2021, explained earlier this year. Students in that discipline are "problem solving, thinking creatively, and working in teams."
Dalton High's International Baccalaureate program is also robust, Hungerpiller said. "We really believe in that program" where students drill down deeply into a specific area of study, and "we have plans to grow our numbers even more."
As Dalton Public Schools interviewed candidates to replace Bartoo, Hungerpiller distinguished herself both with her prior administrative experience, as well as "the excellent job she was doing as assistant principal at Dalton High," said Superintendent Tim Scott. "She has been able to bring some fresh ideas and perspective to the school while maintaining the focus on educational excellence for all students."
A tweaked schedule this year will afford students more flex time to seek help from teachers, Hungerpiller said. In advisement time, the current crop of freshmen will remain in their group with the same teacher all four years of school, so that educator becomes "their person" for any needs.
Hungerpiller "is passionate about Dalton High School and has high expectations for her administration and teachers," Scott said. "She knows our community and is well-respected by students, parents and staff."
The three R's
While Hungerpiller has been involved with education at all three levels, her preference is high school, she said. "I love seeing a student come in as a freshman, blossom, and graduate four years later."
Hungerpiller is focused on "the three R's: relationships you build, relevance of (instruction and content) and academic rigor."
"Students won't show you how much they know until you show them how much you care, the rigor has to be appropriate, and you always have to look for ways to make (instruction) relevant," she said. Students need to see "how they will use these lessons later on in their lives."