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A Georgia middle school principal writes to President Obama and he writes back

Brian K. Suits, 2015-2016 Georgia Middle School Principal of the Year and principal of Dalton Middle School, penned a letter to President Obama that drew a response from the president in which he wrote: "Your work to put opportunity within reach for each student at Dalton Middle School makes good on the promise of our education system, and of America."

In his letter, Obama references by name a student Suits singled out in his letter, Luis Orozco.

Here is a piece on the letters by Lindsey Derrick,  a Dalton resident and recent University of Georgia journalism graduate who does freelance writing for Dalton Public Schools.

By Lindsey Derrick

A purple folder sits on the desk of President Barack Obama.

In that folder are 10 letters. These letters come from many different people across the nation. They are from a daughter who wants her father to find a job. They are from a mother of a veteran who died in the line of duty.

And on an early day of September 2015, that purple folder holds a letter from Dalton, Georgia.

One year ago, Dalton Middle School principal Brian Suits thought about all the progress his school had made (such as improving tests scores and overcoming a bad economy that had put many of his students into poverty), and he began searching for awards that would acknowledge those accomplishments.

It was during this time that Suits got an email about applying for the Georgia Middle School Principal of the Year. 

“I thought, here’s a platform to draw attention to our school,” said Suits.

So, he applied.

And he won.

Since past winners of the award got to go to Washington, D.C, Suits said students began getting excited at the idea of their principal possibly meeting President Obama.

However, for the first time in 25 years, only one winner from the state got to go, and Georgia sent their high school principal of the year.

“I had a pity party,” Suits said when he got the news. “I had all these stories locked away, and I got frustrated. I had all these kids counting on me, and I felt like I let them down.”

Suits said he didn’t have the heart to tell the kids he wasn’t going, so he found an outlet for his disappointment.

“I had to get it off my chest, so I wrote a letter,” said Suits.

In March, he began composing letters to Gov. Nathan Deal, the president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the Georgia state school superintendent and President Obama.

Suits said he let the letters sit, and then would go back and revise them, and before long, it became less about his disappointment of not going to D.C. to why everyone needed to know about Dalton Middle School.

“It morphed into why I wanted to go in the first place,” Suits said of the content of his letter. “It focused on the stories and how people could learn from us.”

He wrote about Luis Orozco, now a freshman at Dalton High, who picked up garbage after his wrestling match so the custodians wouldn’t have to stay late.

He wrote about a receptionist they tutored so she could get her U.S. citizenship.

He wrote about a student who asked if Suits could be “sort of be like his dad” since he was living with a single mother.

He wrote about climbing tests scores and becoming the first Literacy Collaborative middle school in the United States.

Suits also mentioned Dalton Middle School's groundbreaking sensory room (there are only around 10-12 of these rooms in schools around the nation) — a room designed to calm and sooth autistic children when they have an outburst.

The sensory room came about from a group of then seventh graders during a project on a topic of their choosing.  Gigi Robertson and Windel Ross decided to combine their passions (Robertson likes working with special needs students, and Ross has a love for running) into one big project.

The students put on a fundraising 5K in April to earn money for the sensory room.  They earned more than $9,000 and put the room into reality.

“It takes a while to realize we actually did it,” Ross said of the room.

Ross and Robertson, both 13-year-old eighth graders now, describe the room as relaxing and stimulating at the same time.

It has many things to fuel the senses — turf flooring, colorful lights, a bubble tube, soothing music, and toys that students can check out and take to class with them.

“It makes me happy when I walk by and realize someone is in here,” Robertson said of the room. “You can tell it really helps.”

Suits said his letter sat around for three to four months until the July shootings in Chattanooga.  “There are too many bad things happening in this world, so I decided to mail it and be done,” Suits said.

Shortly after Suits received a form letter (a letter written by staffers) from Gov. Deal.  He never got a response from the National Association of Secondary School Principals or the Georgia state school superintendent.

He also never expected to get anything from the president.

“I thought I would get maybe a form letter,” he said of any response from Obama. “What are the odds that he’d actually read it?”

The odds, in fact, are very low.

The White House receives around 20,000 letters and emails per day.

After being screened for security, the letters then go through rooms and rooms filled with staffers reading them until they reach the director of the White House Office of Correspondence. The director then chooses 10 letters from those 20,000 for the president to read. They are put in the purple folder and put on the president’s desk in the Oval Office.

President Obama reads the letters either early in the morning or the last thing at night. He then hand writes responses to two of the letters, and makes notes and outlines for the rest and sends them off to staffers to compose. He revises the letters until he is satisfied, and then personally signs them before sending them off.

On Sept. 11, Suits was going through his mail when he came to a large envelope from the White House.  As Suits read the letter, he realized it wasn’t just a form letter. Obama himself had actually read his letter.

“He mentioned kids’ names and things I said in the letter,” Suits said.  “I’m shocked he even read it.”

Suits told the teachers and students who had designed the sensory room that the president had mentioned their work in his letter.  “They got very emotional. One teacher teared up,” said Suits.

Both Robertson and Ross said they called their parents to tell that their work had been mentioned by the president of the United States.  “Out of millions of people, he knows us,” said Ross.

“It’s crazy because the president knows about me. He knows what I did at school and knows about my work,” Robertson said.

Suits also made a trip to Dalton High to show Orozco the letter.

“When I got to the part where his name is, his eyes teared up. He said, ‘He knows my name,’” said Suits.

Orozco had said that he would go to D.C. as well when they thought Suits was going to make the trip, and after he had read the letter to his former student, Suits told him: “You kind of got to go. You’ve been in the Oval Office.”

Suits said telling Orozco and the group that made the sensory room were great moments.  “Those were my favorite moments since the letter,” Suits said.

Suits plans to frame his letter from President Obama, and has also given copies to Orozco, Ross, and Robertson.

As for Suits’ original letter, it will continue its journey— it will be sent to the archives as a “White House relic” and might possibly be put into the Presidential Library or referenced in one of Obama’s speeches.

In the end of Obama’s letter, he said that the stories from Dalton Middle School will remain in his mind.

And why shouldn’t they?

After all, like Suits said in his letter: “Our kids are underestimated at every turn, but they have so, so much to teach us. We just need to value their voices, and listen.”

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.