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Donna Heavner says she realized in kindergarten that she wanted to be a teacher when she helped a struggling peer learn how to read.
Heavner also says she was at risk of dropping out of school when she was a teenager because she felt lost in the crowd.
Now, Heavner helps about 600 children find their way every day. The River Bend Middle School principal was recognized by her peers this month as Catawba County Schools' principal of the year.
"It's been magical," Heavner said Wednesday. "I have the best group of people. Amazing teachers. Amazing kids. I've been blessed."
She has three county teachers of the year on her staff â€” Melinda Hamilton, Kae Treadway and current teacher of the year Jeanne Laws â€” and the state resource officer of the year, Trent Davis.
Catawba County Schools Superintendent Glenn Barger said Heavner has built a strong faculty and improved student achievement at River Bend since she became principal of the school in 2006.
"She's a very effective principal," Barger said. "She has created an atmosphere with that faculty where they come to her with the initiatives and want her to let them do it.
That's when you know a leader has arrived. And if you walk into that building, there isn't a student she meets in the hallway that she doesn't call by first name. She makes an effort to know every one of her students, and they know she cares about them.
Middle school kids are at that age where they don't want to be loved, but they do."
Middle school students go through the a major growth spurt, second only to their first year of life, Heavner said.
"They grow physically, they grow emotionally and they grow socially," she said. "You see them grow so much at the middle school. I'm a classically trained middle school teacher."
Heavner, a Hickory-area native, pretended to be a teacher as a little girl. She started on her path to being an educator when she helped a classmate learn to read in kindergarten.
"That moment on, it was like I had blinders to everything else," she said. "I wanted to be teacher."
She went through a period later in her school years, however, when she said she felt like just a number. Before junior year, she transferred from St. Stephens High School to Alexander Central High School. There she met teachers Millie Adams and Ruth Rufty, who turned her educational career around. Heavner and Adams went on to be teachers of the year for Burke and Alexander counties respectively in 1997. In high school, Adams and Rufty asked Heavner where she planned to go to college and continue her education.
"I had never been asked that question," Heavner said. "I think everything would have been different without them. I don't think I would be sitting here right now. It's been a journey of having the right people at the right times in my life. That's what I want for these kids."
River Bend's administrators and teachers devised a plan to help all students at the school feel at home and improve their learning. All students spend the first 45 minutes of every day in an intervention class designed to help them improve in a study area. Classes include book studies, transitional math and high-reading groups.
Reaching Achieving Meeting Potential (RAMP) classes help the third of the school in the middle achievement bracket. About 120 students answer questions about where they want to attend college, they make college visits and learn how to fill out college and financial aid applications.
"I think we've tapped into something they need," Heavner said. "You have this middle 33 percent that get lost among the high end and the low end. That was me."
As a high school student, Heavner went on to earn a full scholarship to Lenoir-Rhyne University and â€” with support of her parents Margaret and Jim Johnson and husband Jim Heavner â€” has since earned master's degrees in education and school administration.
She became an assistant principal at Arndt Middle School in 2001, a position she held until 2006 when she transferred to River Bend.
"I never thought I'd leave the classroom," she said. "You get to a point as a teacher when you wonder what's next. The determining factor for me was as a middle school teacher, I had an affect on 120 kids. As an administrator, principal or assistant principal, I had an affect on 600 kids every day."
Heavner said she sits at Bunker Hill's graduation each year and watches kids walk across the stage.
"They celebrate that they made it," she said. "At the middle school, if I can get one of those kids (that is) thinking about dropping out, turn them around and get them across that stage, that's the magic."