It's not every day that a middle school principal graduates to high school along with his students.
"As you are moving on to high school, I am moving on to high school, also," Dawson County Middle School Principal Mark Merges told his graduating eighth graders during an awards assembly Friday. "I've done 12 years in middle school - five in one county and seven here - and finally I'm moving on to a high school level."
Merges has accepted a position at Sequoyah High School in Cherokee County as the assistant principal and athletic director.
"It's hard to imagine myself anywhere else but here and I've grown a lot here, but it's going to be good to go back to my roots," he said. "I started in Cherokee County and I'm going back to a school that I coached at."
Merges began his career in education by graduating with a physical education degree from New York in 1991.
After moving to Georgia, he began at Little River Elementary in Cherokee County in 1993.
Merges then moved to the newly-opened Arnold Mill Elementary in Cherokee County, where he worked for seven years before moving to a coaching position at Sequoyah High School for five years, working as the head girl's track and head cross country coach, as well as assistant football coach.
Following Sequoyah High School, Merges became assistant principal at Dean Rusk Middle School for five years before applying for the Dawson County Middle School position seven years ago.
"When we opened up, our scores were in the 70th [percentile]. Within three years, we were up into the 90s and now we are where we want to be," he said. "The key is that it has always been about giving the kids every opportunity to succeed.
We've tried our best to provide that and I'm very happy with the success that the school has had over the past seven years."
Merges said these increases have been from some of the schools unique programs.
"I've always tried to focus on the academics and push everything in the right direction. One of the things we've done here is that I've required all of my teachers to be certified as gifted-level teachers," he said. "That helped them serve a wide range of students, not just the gifted students, with more techniques."
Other programs include the work Merges began with Professor Joe Covert with the University of North Georgia, which included having students program and build computer-controlled probe thermometers that the students maintain and use in classes, as well as instituting the oratorical program in the schools, which produced a state winner this year.
Merges is married to Jennifer, and has six children, Myles, Chloe, Mackenzie, Jenna, Zack and Lucas.
Jeff Clapper, assistant principal at Little Mill Middle School in Forsyth County, was hired during the May board of education meeting to fill Merges' position for next year.
"Dawson County Middle School has been successful because our teachers have worked diligently to teach standards, but we also try keep a family feel in relationship with the community," Merges said.