Ritchie Stevenson has been the principal of Lake Forest Middle School for about 15 years.
His career in the county school system began as an interim teacher covering for a Bradley High School teacher who was on maternity leave.
Stevenson later taught social studies and chorus at Bradley Junior High School for 10 years before becoming the assistant principal of Trewhitt School, a now-defunct school that was located on what is now the Lake Forest campus and taught students in both elementary and junior high grades.
He later became Trewhitt’s principal, and he was there when it went through the changes that turned it into Lake Forest. When the school system moved to the concept of middle schools housing students in the sixth through eighth grades, the middle school students stayed on the campus. The younger and older ones joined elementary and high schools.
In all, he has been with the Bradley County school system for 28 years.
“I’m a Bradley Countian through and through,” Stevenson said. “I love Bradley County. I had opportunities to leave. However, it was very near and dear to my heart.”
The 50-year-old husband and father of two now resides not far from where he spent his own school years.
Having grown up in Bradley County, he was a student in the school system he would later find himself working in as an adult.
He graduated from Bradley Central High School in 1982, after having attended the school of which he would later be the principal.
“I actually attended my seventh, eighth and ninth grades here, at Trewitt, during the first three years of its opening,” Stevenson said.
After high school, he attended college at Cleveland State Community College and Lee University before earning a master’s degree in education administration from the University of Tennessee.
He and his family are active members of First Baptist Church.
Stevenson is also a pianist. He studied the art of piano, playing for many years and used those skills when he taught chorus.
He formerly played piano at his church for about 9 1/2 years, around the time Dr. Allen Lockerman first became the pastor of First Baptist.
Another hobby is golf, though he said he does not consider himself an expert.
While he said some might find it strange, one way he finds “release” from the stresses of being a school principal is by doing things like mow the lawn and do repairs around his home.
Though being a school principal, taking care of his family and trying to do things he enjoys out of school keep him busy, Stevenson describes himself as a “really, truly blessed man.”
His wife, Amy, is originally from Loudon County but later made Bradley County her home as well.
The couple has two children, 8-year-old daughter Addison and 2-year-old son Grayson.
Stevenson said being a 50-year-old man with a 2-year-old son has resulted in some funny moments.
Once, a Lake Forest student saw him at the mall with his son. She later mentioned that to him when she saw him in the school’s cafeteria. She asked him if he had been spending the day with his grandson.
Stevenson said that made him laugh, the idea of him being his son’s grandfather instead of father. However, it is a common misconception.
While becoming a father has given him a different view on life than he had before, he said he got into education because he already had a passion for helping children learn.
“I’ve always loved children,” Stevenson said. “I have been blessed over the years to have some wonderful students. Having my children late in life has been that much more of a blessing to me.”
He said he tries to encourage teachers and school staff to keep in mind that “children are the most precious commodity that a family can have.”
While many students in school carry themselves well and succeed, there are those who make poor choices and find themselves in trouble.
Even when a student finds himself or herself in the office of Stevenson or one of his assistant principals because they misbehaved, he said it has been important for them to remember that even that should result in a positive learning experience.
“Children have to know where the line is and if that line is crossed there has to be some sort of repercussion,” he said.
However, “kids are going to make mistakes.” He pointed out that adults sometimes make mistakes, too.
Still, being a school principal is not without its challenges.
Stevenson said Lake Forest’s campus has created some unique challenges for the school.
The campus consists of more than a dozen separate buildings that house all the school’s different components, including separate buildings for the cafeteria, the gym and the auditorium.
“It has its challenges,” Stevenson said. “It does.”
One thing that he said he has made an effort to improve upon since becoming the school’s principal is communication. When all the teachers are spread out through different buildings, he said it is especially important for that to be a priority.
During his tenure as principal, he has had the school intercom system replaced, purchased two-way radios for all the administrators, established monthly meetings for school faculty and overseen the creation of PLCs, or “professional learning communities,” that call for once-a-week planning meetings for teachers in the same grades and subjects.
When problems like bad weather have arisen, he said he has had to adjust students’ schedules and instruct them to stay where they are instead of going outside in rough weather like a severe thunderstorm.
Stevenson said he has been asking the county school board to consider providing funding to make improvements to the campus so students can more easily move from place to place without weather being an issue.
The school board most recently approved a major renovation to the school’s auditorium that is set to begin this August and provide a dedicated lobby area for students and families to take shelter in before events start, he said. In the future, Stevenson said he would like to see a new classroom building constructed to alleviate some of the problems having mulitple buildings has caused.
Stevenson has served on the board of directors of the Tennessee Association of Middle Schools for several years, and he said principals statewide have had to deal with some of the same challenges.
Schools have had to figure out how to navigate the changes new state educational standards and new technologies have brought.
He explained that the schools have steadily been implementing the Common Core State Standards, but the most recent standardized test students had to take was not in line with what they had most recently been taught.
Schools had at one point been preparing to administer the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) assessment, a test designed to align with Common Core State Standards and replace the long-standing Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) test.
However, the state Legislature voted this year to delay that change, and students took the TCAP. TCAP scores for individual schools and school districts have not yet been released, but state averages released last week showed students showed gains in some subject area scores despite the change.
Another challenge Stevenson said he has faced as a school principal has been the increasing popularity of smartphones and social media websites among students.
In addition to students having to learn how to make good decisions about what they share online, Stevenson said it is easy for “misinformation” to be sent quickly through text messages. It is not uncommon for there to be a “disruption” caused because someone said something about someone else on a website like Facebook.
Despite the challenges, he said he loves what he does.
“I think that this is one of the most rewarding professions that someone can decide to go into,” Stevenson said.
He said he has enjoyed the reward of watching some of his former students grow up to be successful and begin contributing to their community as adults.
“There’s nothing more rewarding than that,” he said.
Still, he claims he can’t take the credit for that.
“I am not Lake Forest. I’m just a small, intricate part of Lake Forest,” Stevenson said. “We’ve made a very valiant attempt to hire people who love children and have hearts that are truly in education.”
He said he is “blessed” to have so many good teachers and staff at the school and to have been able to help educate local students for nearly 30 years.
Stevenson stressed that it takes a whole team to run a successful school, and he is just one member.
“It’s not the principal so much as the staff he has around him. It’s not just one person; it’s everybody,” he said.
“I really, truly feel like a blessed man.”