Cecil Strong once dreamed of a career in law enforcement.
He never imagined that one day he would be the principal at Thomson High School, or that he would love it.
He was working for the Department of the Interior as a park ranger in Montana when the government initiated several rounds of layoffs in 1995.
He returned to his home state of Georgia to finish his education, and then went to work as a teacher at Burke County Middle School. He expected it to be temporary.
Instead, he found he could make a difference and discovered a new direction for his life.
“I saw that education was a way for many of our young people to better themselves,” he said.
Not sure which subject he most wanted to teach, Strong earned certification in language arts, math, science and social studies, although he never had the opportunity to teach the latter.
In 2002 he applied for an assistant principal’s position with the McDuffie County school system and was hired as the ninth grade assistant principal for Thomson Junior High School.
The next year he became the first principal of the newly-formed McDuffie Achievement Center.
Before the school opened in 2009, the county had an outsourced alternative program, he said. The board of education decided that it would be better to operate its own program.
“I think (opening the school) was one of the best moves that year,” he said.
He said the results were immediately clear when 12 students graduated the first year. When he became principal at Thomson High School in the fall, he felt like he was coming home, partly because even at the achievement center he worked with high school students, and partly because the senior class is the same group of students he worked with as assistant principal at the junior high school.
Strong said he loves his role as principal of the high school.
“High school, really, those are the best four years of your life, if you think about it,” he said. “The four years of high school give you the opportunity to grow in a safe environment.”
Strong wants to prepare students for their future roles as productive members of society. To do that, he believes in putting less emphasis on numeric grades and more on education.
“Schools are a place where learning takes place,” he said. “The academic part, yes, but the social aspect, this is where you learn.”
He hopes to run into former students in the future and find that, rather than becoming important doctors, lawyers and CEOs, they have become solid family members and productive members of society.
“I’m worried about how successful young people are going to be afterwards,” he said.
When he’s not at school, Strong said he enjoys spending time with his wife, Sonya, and their four children.