By Meredith Pruden
Step inside the walls of any high school as an adult, and it always seems to feel a bit like a scene from a movie: one where the protagonist stands motionless amidst the masses as the rest of the world speeds by all around. Classes may be in session and students might be mostly behind closed doors engrossed in their coursework – or at the very least pretending to be – but there is inescapable electricity in the air sparked by, among other things, the unadulterated power of youth.
North Atlanta High School is no different and with so much charging full speed within its walls it takes a special sort of person to conduct its 1200-strong student force. Enter J. Scott Bursmith: the motorcycle riding, drag racing, guitar playing leader of NAHS.
Bursmith has been the principal at NAHS only since the beginning of the 2005 school year but, working in concert with members of his administrative team, already has instituted several drastic changes including a ‘golf course’ style dress code, which has reduced disciplinary incidents by 45 percent and a school-wide classroom move to facilitate the school’s small learning communities. The learning communities were in place already in the IB Programme but have now been instituted school wide.
He also inherited a barrage of building renovations and the Atlanta Public School system’s plan to integrate Sutton Middle and NAHS into one bi-campus school with a principal for each. This merger coincides with the requirements of the International Baccalaureate Organization’s Middle Years Programme, which is scheduled to be added to the existing IB Programme at NAHS and is in the certification process at this time.
Bursmith was heavily recruited as the system’s top choice due to his coaching background and experience with both diverse student populations and the IB Programme at Marietta High School.
“Given all the changes taking place, we needed someone who could not just improve our athletic programs but take a coaching approach to all the changes,” Dean of Academics John Denine said. “It’s good to have his calm coaching style to lead us.”
Many of the changes at NAHS were spawned by the system’s desire to continue the trend toward community support seen in its six elementary schools.
“If you look back 20 years, you would see that the community wasn’t supporting the schools but it’s been changing dramatically. The elementary schools are bursting at the seams,” Denine said. “The goal here is for North Atlanta to be a community school. We are the only public high school in Buckhead, so we are trying to do everything necessary to make us palatable and in fact competitive with the other choices.”
NAHS has always been competitive academically with its neighboring schools, according to Denine.
“Ninety-two percent and up of our graduates have gone to college. Our students have received between $8 and 14 million in scholarships, so that’s a pretty good sign of success independent of how people perceive the school,” Denine said. “We’ve been excellent, but we’re going for world class.”
To implement its ‘world class’ status, the Atlanta Public Schools’ superintendent created the North Corridor Taskforce, which developed 34 guidelines for the NAHS transformation. Aside from a more cluster-based educational approach tying the six feeder elementary schools, Sutton Middle and NAHS together in their IB approach, one of the first items on the taskforce agenda was a new leadership structure at the school, according to Denine, but after a nationwide search ended with Bursmith, he refused the position twice before coming on board.
“I was very happy where I was and enjoyed what I was doing. I also didn’t think they were competitive enough to attract the type of leadership needed to do a high school transformation, so they took a critical look and decided I was right. I was the reason all the high school principals across the district received a raise, and I remind them of that all the time – that I need to feel the love,” Bursmith said grinning.
Bursmith has had much success in his nearly 30-year career and has ‘felt the love’ as the coach of two state champion golf teams and one state champion basketball team. He also is a two-time state coach of the year and one-time national coach of the year in what is now known as the McDonald’s High School All American Basketball Games. As the temporary coach of the NAHS women’s basketball team, Bursmith also recently took his 400th win to be inducted into the Atlanta Sports Council’s Atlanta Tip Off Club Georgia Hall of Fame.
“I didn’t intend on coaching [at NAHS],” Bursmith said. “We’re doing pretty well, but I’m going to fire myself. We’re actively looking for a basketball coach for next year, but I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s been a diversion for me after a day of test scores and grades and discipline. It’s my 90 minutes to think about something else – a release.”
Bursmith said he believes his coaching success translates well into his role as an administrator.
“Academics and athletics go hand-in-hand because athletics really teaches you about teamwork, hard work, motivation and life lessons,” Bursmith said. “High school is all about team building and those teams have to be motivated to compete because what we’re in is really competitive. You have to prepare and execute a game plan and they [No Child Left Behind and the newspapers] are going to report whether you won or lost the game.”
It seems Bursmith and his team are winning the game at NAHS thanks in large part to the presence and rigor of the IB Programme. Last year NAHS was ranked in the top two percent of national schools in its students’ college preparedness. But, although the IB Programme is the top echelon of academic programs, according to Denine, the institution of learning communities is also paving the way for increased student responsibility.
“You come to North Atlanta as a freshman and you have to choose whether you’re going to be in art, international studies or business,” Denine said. “Inside of that there are majors. That really sets out your four-year plan, which is way different than the old model. We’re taking away a little choice but doing so in a positive way by giving them big picture choices which are carefully orchestrated and much better integrated.”
Another staple of student life at NAHS is Bursmith’s ‘firm but fair’ disciplinary policies.
“My philosophy of discipline is that you need to get to know your students,” Bursmith said. “They need to see you, they need to have access to you, they need to talk to you and they need to have ownership in the rules. We have their best interests at heart and we’re not out to get them, but if they cross the line they’re not going to get any special treatment, and the students accept that.”
NAHS and Bursmith’s fresh approach to the high school experience combines to create exactly what the Taskforce had hoped might occur – a community school.
“This is a viable choice for the community,” Bursmith said. “I tease people telling them, ‘If your child comes here, I will give them a scholarship: free books and tuition.’ Of course, everyone gets free tuition here. Some of the schools they’re choosing do not have free tuition. They’re paying for that and they’ve already paid for this.”
Bursmith’s favorite slogan encapsulates what is best about North Atlanta High School, “Take a good look at us. You might be surprised, but you will be impressed.”