By Christopher Smith
Marisela Jacobo moved to Georgia from Mexico when she was 17 and didn’t speak a word of English when she started her junior year at Dalton High School in 2001. Her plan was to get through the school system as soon as possible and get a job with her father at a carpet mill.
Now she is a first-year internal medicine resident at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
She said that’s because of the “significant impact” that Dalton High Principal Debbie Freeman — who told faculty and staff of her plans to retire this week — had on her educational efforts.
Freeman’s decision was thought out, said school officials, but when Freeman said she will retire on June 30, 2012, because of “family obligations” it still came as a shock.
Freeman declined to talk about her retirement, but others spoke about her contributions to Dalton High.
“When she started as principal (in 2007), our graduation rate was around 50 percent,” said Steve Bartoo, associate principal. “Now, it sits at a high 80 percent or low 90 percent. A large part of that is due to her leadership. She is an extremely strong leader. She developed programs and intervened to help kids.”
Intervening for kids meant taking books in English to low-income, non-English speaking households, said Sarida Hoy, who teaches English as a Second Language (ESL). Hoy helped Freeman deliver the books to Latino families in 2002 when Freeman was the ESL department chair.
“We thought (her decision) was funny at first,” said Hoy. “But the more books we brought to these homes, the higher level of education these students attained. She gathered a lot of data on Latino students — she is very research-driven — and she told the school that those students would move forward with the rest of the population and be successful. We have several stories of students (like Jacobo) that have broken the cycle of their families (who did not go to college).”
Jacobo said Freeman’s intervention was the main reason she is “living her dream.”
“I don’t think I would have pursued my medical career without Ms. Freeman” she said. “Without her, I was overwhelmed with the system and I would’ve given up on my dream. Because I didn’t speak English, the school wanted me to do all four years of high school again. Ms. Freeman helped me. I learned English in a year and streamlined the classes. It took me two years before I graduated.”
Her older brother was the only other family member who attended Dalton High, but Jacobo’s entire family was impacted by Freeman.
“My father was the only one working and he had a hard labor job in a carpet mill. He only made $10 an hour and he had to support seven kids and my mom,” said Jacobo. “The plan was for all of us to graduate from high school and get the best job we could find and help the family, but when I started college it motivated my whole family.”
Jacobo’s older brother is pursing a doctorate in economics at the University of Georgia, while her five younger siblings are all currently enrolled at other state colleges. The academic success has often made Jacobo’s parents emotional, she said. Jacobo plans on practicing medicine in Georgia where her family still resides.
“At my college graduation (from North Georgia College & State University), both my parents were overwhelmed and started crying,” she said. “They never expected any of us to go to college. I don’t think I have words to express my appreciation. Ms. Freeman didn’t just impact me. She really changed my whole family.”
And the whole school, said Bartoo, who believes Freeman’s biggest contributions are cutting “low-level classes” and replacing them with college preparation classes, creating a literary lab on campus to offer extra help to students, and offering a flexible schedule to let students get help during school hours.
“To be a successful principal there is no silver bullet,” said Bartoo. “You have to know your kids and what they’re all about to build a system of structures to support them. Freeman always asked, ‘How do we graduate more kids?’ She is dynamic, courageous and very smart.”
With her decision to retire, Hoy said Freeman “has an even stronger sense of urgency to accomplish things before her time is up with the school.”