Originally created 05/20/00

School founder to retire



Beverly Barnhart is convinced that God gives us all a talent.

"If you don't develop your talent, then you lose it," she says.

With that premise in mind, she honed her talents as a developer and organizer into a concept that brought state and national honors to the Richmond County school system.

Mrs. Barnhart, principal of John S. Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School, brought the magnet school concept to Augusta.

She designed the curriculum, interviewed staff and students for the county's three magnet schools - C.T. Walker Traditional and A.R. Johnson Health Science and Engineering, which opened in 1980, and Davidson, which opened in 1981.

Mrs. Barnhart will retire next month after serving as Davidson's first and only principal for the past 19 years.

The school is honoring her during an arts festival, and Mayor Bob Young has proclaimed today Beverly Barnhart Day.

A film crew from near her hometown of Warsaw, Ind., is taping the event for a public television special on magnet schools.

Mrs. Barnhart is modest about her contributions and recently tried to direct the spotlight toward the students.

Students, however, say Mrs. Barnhart made the school - which has been recognized by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation as the state's top public school - what it is today.

She began her career in the Richmond County school system in 1973 as a language arts teacher at Collins Elementary School. About a year later, she became coordinator of the district's Emergency School Aide Act.

Mrs. Barnhart was aware of the magnet school concept and informed the school board that grant money was available to pursue the idea.

"I thought it would be something interesting, though nobody had ever tried it in a smaller school system," she said. "I really feel that one of my strengths is as a change agent. I like development and organizing. Anybody who knows me knows that I revel in it."

But she came up empty-handed when she began researching the magnet school curriculum.

"There were no books," Mrs. Barnhart said. "There was really very little except newspaper articles about things that had gone on in different cities."

So she got a research grant, and she and a small group of educators toured magnet programs in Ohio, Houston, Kansas, New York, Kentucky and Greenville, S.C.

She reported her findings to the school board and surveyed parents about the concept, receiving a 73 percent approval vote.

"I became increasingly convinced that a magnet school could work in our city as long as we understood that it would cost money to get it started," she said. "But, if they stayed true to the concept, it would increase academic performance."

Hundreds of parents wait for years to see whether their children will get into one of the three schools, where students outscore others in the district on standardized tests.

After opening the traditional magnet school for lower grades and a health and science magnet high school, Mrs. Barnhart set her sights on a fine arts concept.

"I can remember vividly going to the board (of education) and telling them that if they would agree to let me pursue the fine arts curriculum, I would guarantee - with no experience, just a gut feeling - that we would be a top leader in academics within a matter of five years," Mrs. Barnhart said.

She kept the promise.

In 1983, Davidson was rated by a U.S. Department of Education study as having the highest quality of education among the 45 magnet schools in major geographic areas of the United States.

Since then, the school has garnered several top honors, including top public school in the state in 1996 and 1999.

Looking back on her 19 years as principal, Mrs. Barnhart said that although there is always more to be done, she has no regrets.

"The fact that we have taken in young people, not because they are of academic prowess, but because of their love and interest in the arts and their willingness to say, `I will do what it takes to stay at Davidson,' puts me at peace," she said.

One of the things she wants people to remember about her - as she takes time off to travel with her husband, Lowell, while she still "feels good" - is that she is a quality educator and loves the arts.

One of the things students and some parents will remember about her reign at Davidson is her strict policies - especially the "train rule." Tardy students who blame their delay on a train get an hour of detention. Train tracks lie near the 12th Street school.

"And, if you have a wreck, bring your police report and it will be excused," Mrs. Barnhart said.

"Anybody who knows me knows that I believe strongly in good discipline."

Her students say their principal's toughness doesn't diminish their love for her.

"Her strong character is what holds this school together," said Taylor Becker, a member of the senior class.Jessica Brown, another senior, said she will miss Mrs. Barnhart's voice coming over the intercom making "emergency" announcements and will miss teasing the principal about "sneaking out" when she put on her sunglasses to attend off-campus meetings.

For Jessica Reece, Mrs. Barnhart's yearly request of photographs of each new student is what she will remember most.

"She recognizes the face of each new student, and that's pretty amazing," said the graduating senior. "We are who we are because of her. It's scary to think what the school will be like next year."

James Thompson, principal of Roy E. Rollins Elementary, said he hopes to have a smooth transition when he takes over in August as Davidson's principal. He served as assistant principal at the school from 1993 to 1995.

"Beverly has set an excellent precedent," Mr. Thompson said. "I'm not really replacing her; she started the school. I just want to make sure we carry on the academic and fine arts environment that she established."

Vivian Clanton, Mrs. Barnhart's secretary, said she will miss the routine they shared during the past 18 years.

"I've worked with her so long that she can look at my face and tell what I'm thinking," Mrs. Clanton said. "When June 30 comes, I don't know what I'm going to do."

Mrs. Barnhart said she will miss her students and faculty as much as they will miss her.

"I love this school. In the fall I get more excited than the children," Mrs. Barnhart said as tears welled in her eyes. "But this fall I'm going to be somewhere out of the country."

Reach Faith Johnson at (706) 823-3765 or faithj@augustachronicle.com.