After being named Blue Ridge School's interim principal, Kyle Abernathy engaged his staff in a "snowball fight," where everyone tossed crumpled pieces of paper with motivational words written on them at one another.
When the "fight" ended, everyone opened the paper in his or her hand, and that word became his or her theme for the rest of this school year, Abernathy said. His word was "wisdom, and I aspire to be wise (in my new role)."
"The biggest way to gain wisdom is to listen and be open," Abernathy learned during his previous time as a principal in Floyd County Schools, he said. "When things go well, or don't go well, there's a story — something to be learned — and wisdom to be gained from it."
'God has a master plan'
Abernathy joined Blue Ridge School as assistant principal at the start of this school year, and he was named principal in late-December when former principal Christine Long resigned, effective Monday.
"I didn't expect to be a principal again this soon, but God has a master plan, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive," Abernathy said. "We want a culture here where we're collaborative, results-based, and get to the heart of students and teachers."
"I'm excited for Kyle, who is going to be awesome, and his energy is so much like mine," said Long, who started as Blue Ridge's principal in 2019. "That's one thing that makes this easier, knowing Blue Ridge will be in great hands with Kyle, who proved to be the most generous, hardworking, supportive, courageous assistant principal I could ever have hoped for."
"I will always treasure the many strong relationships I've built with our students — so bright, young and eager — as well as with our administrative team, Blue Ridge's many dedicated and striving-for-excellence teachers, and our wonderful staff," she added. "I thank and tightly hug every one of those who supported me in my journey from Pennsylvania to Georgia and through the years since."
Abernathy has 14 years of experience in education, including serving as a part-time adjunct professor at Shorter University, and he has a doctor of education in educational leadership from Liberty University, as well as an educational specialist’s degree in educational leadership from Berry College, a master’s degree in curriculum from Central Michigan University and a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from Dalton State College, according to Dalton Public Schools.
He was principal of Cave Spring Elementary School in Rome for two years and was an assistant principal at Rome's Model Elementary School for three years before joining Dalton Public Schools for the 2021-22 school year as Blue Ridge's assistant principal.
"I never wanted to be a teacher," said Abernathy, a native of Adairsville. Instead, the talented vocalist planned to pursue music ministry, but as he took core classes at Dalton State he felt called to education.
He thought he'd teach high school English, but during observations and student teaching he fell in love with elementary students, he said.
"There's a novelty" to elementary education — "fun, engaging lessons — and it's easier to get buy-in from students."
Eventually, he "felt called to help" in a different manner, and thought he'd become an instructional coach, but others encouraged him to pursue assistant principal and principal roles, and he started as an assistant principal in 2016-17, he said. Moving to principal is "different," as there's more responsibility, but "I have a very supportive wife and family who have (rallied) around all the changes, and I couldn't do this without them."
Abernathy and his wife April live in Dalton, and his children, fifth-grader Amelia and second-grader Corban, now attend Blue Ridge, he said.
"I'm very family-oriented, and we enjoy traveling to the beach, the mountains, and even an amusement park."
"In my free time, I like to listen to music and cook for my family," he said. "This job takes a lot of time, but I try to pour into my family as much as I can" when not working.
He plans to serve as interim principal the rest of this school year, then allow the Dalton Board of Education members and Superintendent Tim Scott to "decide what is best for Blue Ridge School," he said. "Wherever I'm placed, I'll be happy."
Abernathy is also focused on hiring an assistant principal to replace him, and he or she "will fit into our culture here, I guarantee that," he said. "At Blue Ridge, every decision and every facet of the day is centered on students and their needs, from the time the doors open in the morning until the last person goes home."
From Long, Abernathy learned the importance of "reaching out beyond the walls of our building," he said. "She made great connections with people in the community, and I want to continue those partnerships."
Long will work as a director of school relations for Waterford.org, a nonprofit provider of early learning software, and her focus will be youth literacy, she said. She'll work with school systems, superintendents and boards of education throughout the Northeast.
"I can impact thousands of students in the Northeast beyond just one school, but it's still bittersweet, because I'm leaving such a great school," she said. However, "I can still visit," because she'll continue to be based in Dalton.
Her new role will include plenty of virtual meetings and travel, but "I can stay in Dalton, I don't have to sell my house, and my kids can stay in" Dalton Public Schools, she said. The job offers "extreme flexibility."
While taking over as principal mid-school year isn't ideal, Abernathy views it not as a challenge but, rather, "an opportunity to keep our focus on kids and our direction all about learning and growth," he said. Dalton Public Schools' vision is providing "world-class learning" for students, and "my job is to support teachers so they can focus on meeting the needs of students."
He held several mid-year conferences with teachers the first days back from holiday break, and he aims to meet with every teacher by the end of this month, he said.
"Visibility" is also crucial, so he's popped into as many classrooms as possible to see and chat with students, as "I can do the behind-the-scenes things when everyone has left for the day."
Cave Spring Elementary School is closing at the end of this school year due to low enrollment, which led Abernathy to seek other professional opportunities, and he'd "always loved Dalton and enjoyed the relationships I formed here" as a Dalton State student, then as a student teacher for both Dalton Public Schools and Whitfield County Schools, he said.
"I know Dalton Public Schools has years of history and tradition, and there's an embrace of that culture by the community."
"There's so much love at Blue Ridge, and our students make it easy to come to work every day," he said. "The greatest (feeling) is to get a hug from a child and know they love you."