The main office at Newton High School is dark and vacant these days. The floors are bare and void of furniture. Gone is the large reception desk, coffee table and chairs that adorn the waiting area.
On the front door, a sign redirects all visitors to the school's temporary office in room 15. Across the hall, in room 16, is yet another makeshift office. That one belongs to Roderick Sams, Newton High's new principal. Fittingly, NHS is undergoing a transformation.
Hired in April, Sams officially arrived at Newton High on June 2. He brings with him a new attitude. A spiritual man, Sams believes NHS is poised to revisit past success, and he is prepared to do what it takes to get there.
Sams' path to NHS started in 1990 when, at the urging of his mother, he took a job as a paraprofessional at Blakeney Elementary School in Burke County.
"It really wasn't an urging," Sams said looking back at how he got into education. "It was more like, 'you will work there.' But I fell in love with kids and fell in love with teaching and the possibility of becoming a teacher."
At the time, Sams had been studying history and pre-law at Morehouse College. After taking the parapro position, he transferred to Georgia Southern University and changed his major to early childhood education.
Sams later graduated, earning his bachelor's degree roughly two-and-a-half years later, and the school promptly hired him as a fifth grade teacher.
While at Blakeney, Sams taught all subjects in self-contained classes and began coaching high school sports at Burke County High School. Ironically, the subject he disliked the most as a youth became Sams' favorite to teach.
"Math was always my best subject even though I didn't particularly care for it as student," Sams recalls. "When I became a teacher, math just kind of became a passion. It's kind of funny really."
It was during his time coaching at Burke County that Sams got his desire to lead. In 1997, he jumped at the opportunity to become an assistant principal at Burke County when a positioned opened. For three years, he worked as an assistant administrator In his fourth year, Sams, along with the other two assistant principals, shared the top leadership position as the school went the year without a principal due to a last minute health-related resignation of the then principal.
Sams said the situation taught him how to work better as a collaborative team. He feels that year better prepared him for a top leadership role he was about to assume.
"I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about my ability," Sams said. "I learned how to be a team player, and I learned a lot about myself on how to negotiate."
Sams first shot at principal came in the community he grew to know as a young man. Sams served as principal at Sardis-Girard-Alexander (S.A.G.) Elementary School from 2001 to 2006.
"I was no longer the skinny kid walking in class, who played basketball. I was the principal," Sams said. "It was a very close-knit situation. I truly embraced the opportunity to work with people I had a lot of positive experiences with in the past."
Sams added the experience was surreal and that he felt at home while at S.G.A. Sams went home so-to-speak in 2006 when he accepted the principal position at Blakeney Elementary, the school that gave him his first opportunity in 1990. In essence, Sams' career had come full circle
After Sams first got into education and determined he wanted to make it his career, he said he never thought about administrative leadership, rather he felt he would be happiest as a head coach. As his career progressed, he quickly found his calling.
"I didn't set a goal to become principal," Sams said. "When I first became a teacher, my first thoughts were I was going to be a basketball coach. As time went on and I began to gain some credibility within the staff, I soon realized administration was going to be my path."
For more than 15 years, Sams worked happily in his hometown. But when Newton County hired Dennis Carpenter, who worked with Sams in Burke County, to become the assistant superintendent of human resources earlier this year, the county made a heavy push to acquire him.
Sams' decision to come to Newton County wasn't an easy one. His wife Deena had her own career going, working as an executive director of Burke Community Partnership, and his family has only known one community.
"I was happy in Burke county and just staying in my home town," Sams said. "That's my home. That's where my mother lives. But after the interview, I talked with Dr. (Steve) Whatley about his standards and the transition this high school is going through and I became intrigued."
Sams and his family eventually accepted the county's offer. His family is firmly behind the decision to move. And while they remain in Waynesboro until the end of July to tie up loose ends, Sams is confident he made the right choice.
"Through prayer and after several conversations with people in the community, Dr. Whatley and Mr. Carpenter, I realized I was being led to Newton High School," Sams said. "The attractiveness of this community and the progressive nature of the district and the challenge of getting back to high school made it easier for me."
Signs of change are scattered throughout other areas of Newton High. The old carpet in the science classrooms will be replaced and the halls are getting a fresh coat of paint. It's fitting that Newton gets a facelift.
Sams will tell you faith plays a large roll in his life. He is confident he doesn't have to do anything major to get NHS back to the success it once enjoyed. Instead, he believes a steady commitment to the students and a cohesive effort from his teachers will undoubtedly break the stigma that NHS underperforms relative to the other two high schools in the district. He's ready to give everything he has to Newton County, and he believes NHS will once again set high standards for everyone to achieve.
"One of the things students will learn about me right away is that I get involved with everything whether it be football and basketball games or band and drama performances," Sams said. "I'm aware of the challenges we have here. We have a school in transition and one that has experienced demographic shifts. But my number one priority is to make sure that every student that enters Newton High comes to school in a safe and orderly environment that is conducive to learning. Success has a tendency to change paradigms. Newton High School is going to experience a resurrection. We will be successful."