On a spring Saturday in 2012, Gary Davison and Drew Ferrer looked at each other in amazement.
Lambert High School’s principal and athletic director, respectively, had just watched the young school’s boy's lacrosse program win its second state championship a day after the boy's soccer team won its first.
Two days, two state titles, for a school that was barely three years old.
“Drew and I looked at each other and were like, ‘That’s unbelievable. What school gets to do that? What school has that happen?’” Davison said.
Those two days in Lambert’s history are called ‘Championship Weekend,’ and to Davison it was one of the earliest and clearest assurances that Lambert was on an auspicious trajectory, and not just in athletics.
This year is the 10th for the school on Nichols Road, and in that time Lambert has made a rapid ascension into the upper echelon of high schools in the state. The latest round of reports had the school leading the Forsyth County Schools district in graduation rate, SAT scores, ACT scores and the College and Career Ready Performance Index. Lambert was ranked the top high school in the county, according to a study by Niche.com released in August, and No. 7 in the entire state.
But before all that, Davison wasn’t sure he wanted to be Lambert’s first principal.
Twice, in fact, he declined overtures in 2007 by then-Forsyth County Schools superintendent Paula Gault to open the school. It wasn’t the right time, Davison thought. His son had just died, and he was in just his second year as principal at South Forsyth High School.
But Gault’s final attempt was her most convincing.
“She said, Gary, there are two things I’m going to go ahead and tell you are unchangeable: The address is 805 and one of the colors is crimson. Outside of that, you can build what you want to build,’” Davison said.
Davison committed to the job, and the first thing he determined was Lambert’s premise.
“I knew for us to do it right, everything in this building needed to be built on relationships with people,” Davison said.
Davison’s first call was to Ferrer, who was an assistant baseball coach at South Forsyth and taught sports marketing. Ferrer became Lambert’s first athletic director, and together they studied high schools in Georgia, Texas and Virginia to develop a blueprint for Lambert. They focused on schools well-rounded in academics and athletics and that had built a legacy within their nearby communities.
Davison and Ferrer discovered all the schools they studied had an uncommon synergy between the campus and the community, so the two found a donor to fund the first spirit wear and they went on a tour of Lambert’s future feeder neighborhoods. They met families in clubhouses and churches and shared their vision for a school that would take the pride within those neighborhoods and bring it to the campus.
“All of our neighborhoods are very tight-knit groups,” Davison said. “But I wanted them to bring that feeling to the school.”
Their timing couldn’t have been worse. Davison and Ferrer were attempting to start a school in the early stages of the Great Recession. Like the rest of the country, Forsyth County saw its unemployment rapidly increase.
Somehow, that became a galvanizing force.
“People were losing their jobs and everything else was happening, but people were getting excited,” Davison said. “So we were trying to keep them focused on something else. Stay focused on this.”
The struggling economy also forced Davison to get creative. His budget had restraints, so Davison worked out a loan with the school district to be paid back in five years. Unable to hire from outside the county, Davison pulled together teachers from 16 different schools in the district to build his first staff. Davison held off on starting some of his more ambitious ideas, like the school’s culinary arts program.
Meanwhile, Davison, Ferrer and a student advisory group continued to develop Lambert’s identity. They created the school’s crest around the ideas of family, an emphasis on business and science curriculum and maintaining a standard of excellence.
One of the hardest tasks was choosing a mascot. Though Lambert was created out of South Forsyth’s district, it was thought the school would be a rival of Northview High School in north Fulton County, so the advisory group focused on mascots similar to Northview’s titans, but there was no consensus.
One day, Ferrer walked in with a new concept: Longhorns. It was novel to Georgia, and it had the alliteration with Lambert.
“As soon as he said that, every kid in the room said, ‘Yes!’” Davison said.
Soon enough, Lambert opened in 2009. They celebrated the grand opening with a pep rally for the school’s 1,300 students. Real longhorns were there. About 30 members of the family of the school’s namesake, Clarence Lambert, the first principal in Forsyth County, attended too.
Davison and his staff had navigated through tumultuous times in the county and country and created something new in the community.
“It was one of the neatest examples of people getting together to work on something that I’ve ever been a part of,” Davison said.
I knew for us to do it right, everything in this building needed to be built on relationships with peopleGary Davison, Lambert High School principal
Today, Lambert’s student population has nearly doubled, and Davison said the school has had to redefine its previous benchmarks for success. Its 2018 graduating was the fourth straight to have the most enrollees at the University of Georgia in the state. Its athletic department has won 25 state championships and four consecutive Director’s Cups in its classification, the award given to the top overall school in the state. Its iGym team won a gold medal at a competition at MIT. Another group of students presented a cure for cholera to a college audience.
“I could never have fathomed that,” Davison said.
Davison believes Lambert’s vision for interacting with its students, family and staff is intact, but the school has been willing to adapt over its 10 years.
Davison feels being a teenager has become increasingly difficult, with college admissions getting stricter and more societal pressure.
Davison found one symptom was an increased number of failing grades around midterms. So three years ago, Davison developed “lunch and learn,” a 50-minute extra period built into the day that gives students the freedom to use at their disposal. Teachers from each academic department are available to help with questions, or students can use the time to relax.
Davison said the number of failing midterm grades has dropped from 5.7 percent of students to less than 1 percent.
“That was the biggest change in the last four years that we have done that was the biggest culture change for us,” Davison said.
Davison knows there will be more changes at Lambert to come. He already sees a greater rate of students taking online classes, and so he’s thinking now of how to integrate that demand into the school.
But Davison said he never wants Lambert to stray from its commitment to treat its students and staff like family.
One of the best indicators of that is alumni opt to return to teach at the school. It another characteristic Davison and Ferrer found 10 years ago as they researched researching schools.
This school year, Davison hired the seventh Lambert alumni on staff.
“That was something I was always eager to see,” Davison said, “And when it happened, it was really cool.”