Terri North remembers how excited she was when she first opened DeSana Middle School in 2016, introducing kids to the school she worked hard for the past year to build from the ground up.
As DeSana’s principal, she hired teachers, helped kids choose a new mascot and created a warm and welcoming school environment for students and staff. Most of all, she got out into the community and met with everyone she could — parents, students, teachers, residents and more — so she could share her vision of the new school.
Much like many principals who have opened schools, North said it is an experience like none other. Since coming to Forsyth County in 1997, that experience has been a huge part of her career and one she said she will always cherish.
North opened three other middle schools in the county before heading to DeSana — Otwell’s second campus, Riverwatch and Piney Grove.
After 41 years in education and 24 years in Forsyth County Schools, North is excited to move on to a new chapter in her life. At the end of the 2020-21 school year, she officially retired from DeSana Middle School, leaving the principalship to former Denmark High School Assistant Principal Keith Sargent.
Journey to Forsyth County
North spent her entire career pouring herself into middle grade students, beginning as a sixth- grade teacher in Durham, N.C., where she had just graduated with her degree in education from Duke University.
“I just kind of fell in love with middle schoolers,” North said. “I love the age, love who they are, just love everything about them. They’re beginning to see the world in a different way. Their eyes are opening a little bit more.”
And so after starting with middle school students then in 1980, she decided to stick with them for as long as she could. She ended up leaving North Carolina in 1983, heading down to Atlanta where she began working in Fulton County Schools.
She began teaching there at Sandy Springs Middle School where she met Dr. Mary Chandler, who was her principal at the time.
Before meeting Chandler, North said she had never pictured herself in a leadership position. She loved teaching more than anything, and she had no plans to leave. But she said Chandler saw something in her that she had never seen in herself before, and she encouraged her to think more about leadership opportunities.
“It appealed to me,” North said. “I still wasn’t sure that was exactly what I wanted to do, but she kept encouraging me along the way …. She’s always been there [for me].”
After teaching at Sandy Springs for nine years, North finally took Chandler’s advice and set her goals on a principalship. She left for Ridgeview Middle School where she served as an assistant principal from 1992 to 1996. Then, she took over for her first time as principal at Holcomb Bridge Middle School in Alpharetta.
North admitted she struggled with her first year serving as a principal, and at the same time, her colleagues who were in similar positions seemed to be thriving.
Chandler had left Fulton, moving up to South Forsyth Middle School where she was serving as principal at the time, and another one of North’s close colleagues was working at Otwell. Both of them shared how much they loved Forsyth County and its school system, and when a position opened up at Otwell, they encouraged her to come to the county, too.
She took over as principal at Otwell in 1997, and she immediately fell in love with the school system and community.
North quickly became close with all of the other middle school principals in the county along with the students and staff at her school. To her, they all felt like a work family she could always turn to when she needed help or guidance.
“When I first came here, I thought I had arrived in Camelot, and since leaving here two weeks ago, I still believe it’s Camelot,” North said. “[There are] so many great leaders here that, any of them, I feel like I could pick up the phone and call. The middle school principals have always been a close-knit group. We like to have fun, but we also know we’re there for each other.”
Solving a puzzle
She was glad to have such a strong support system within FCS when she was asked to open her first school four years after joining the district.
In 2001, North opened the new building for Otwell, located across the street from where the school once stood next to Forsyth Central High School near downtown Cumming. During the process of moving, she hired new teachers and staff and tasked herself with figuring out what the new Otwell building would look like and feel like for students.
Planning for the opening, she said it reminded her of when she used to put together puzzles as a kid. She enjoyed this form of puzzle-solving even more than the last, and the district continued to give her chances to continue with her passion and leadership, asking her to later open three other middle schools.
“I have been known to say the superintendent has given me several chances to get it right,” she said, laughing.
When opening a new school, North said she mostly looks forward to meeting the staff, community, students and parents. Building those relationships and making everyone feel comfortable with changing schools and new environments has always been a top priority for her.
She knows that staff and students alike will always find more success in an environment where they feel welcomed and supported.
“I think it’s one of the most important parts,” North said. “I always want kids to feel as comfortable as possible not just the year we’re opening a school, but every year before they get there so hopefully they don’t worry a whole lot about that first day. They can look forward to it with excitement rather than maybe trepidation.”
Pride in facilitating passion
Looking back on these school openings and her 41 years in education, North said she is most proud of the role she played in helping students and teachers alike find their passion and motivation.
“I loved seeing them succeed and just taking it and running with it,” North said.
She worked to have a positive impact on students, and as she took over as a principal for the first time, she worked just as hard to help her teachers. In the same way Chandler was there for her and encouraged her into leadership, she has inspired other teachers to find their own way forward in their careers.
North will also never forget starting school-wide days of service during her time at Piney Grove, which both encouraged students and helped those in the community who are in need.
She began the service day, called Grizzly Great Day of Giving, a couple of years into her time at Piney Grove. Through an entire school day, they would empty the building, getting students and staff out into the community.
Some years, they would go to nursing homes to play bingo and take part in arts and crafts. Other times, they all went to work in food pantries, donating or collecting food and then organizing them into bags to be delivered out to families.
“It was an opportunity for the kids to have hands-on experience of what it means to give back to your community and to work with others,” North said. “It’s great when you give money and other resources, but to get in and get your hands dirty with it.”
When she left Piney Grove and opened DeSana, she began the same tradition there with a different name, DeSana Day of Good Deeds.
North also worked with her teachers and administration during her time at Piney Grove to open up advanced placement courses for all students who wanted to challenge themselves academically. They could enroll in the courses without any requirements.
“To watch kids who had never thought about challenging themselves in an advanced course learn to work up to that standard and what they might go on to do in high school …. that was pretty cool to watch,” North said.
Beginning of the end
Although she is excited to move on to retirement, North said she will always remember these moments with students and staff as the highlight of her long career in education.
North officially began her retirement in May, but during the summer, she said she still hasn’t quite gotten used to the freedom. When school goes back to school in August, she suspects she will start to miss her colleagues, students and school building, but in the meantime, she is making plans for what she wants to do next.
Starting in the fall, North is heading out west to visit national parks including ones in Arizona, New Mexico and Montana.
She finds peace and quiet in nature, where she also wants to take up photography again. It’s been a passion of hers for many years, and she even received a grant one year to set up a darkroom to teach students to develop photos.
“It really is my therapy when I get to go out and just get lost in nature and lose track of time and just be taking pictures, so I am anxious to get back doing that again,” North said.
Going forward, North is excited to enjoy her new freedom in retirement and to watch as FCS and all of its middle schools continue to grow and offer even more opportunities to students.