Retiring Decatur educator Snow helped troubled students succeed

·5 min read

Jan. 23—Don Snow, who retired last month after 30 years in education capped off as principal of Austin High and then of the Center for Alternatives to Suspension, was described by a former student as a grizzly bear with a heart of gold.

That student, Grantland Steele, graduated from Austin in 2011 and hasn't forgotten the impact his former principal had on his life.

In a letter dedicated to Snow, Steele wrote, "He said, 'Son if you ever want to be anything in life you need to change that nasty attitude you got. You can be better than that.' Dr. Snow is truly a wonderful man that gave a young man like me a chance."

Steele is now working for Decatur City Schools in the alternative center as the assistant director of special services.

"He didn't give up on me," Steele said last week. "He and other people have inspired me to be connected with youth and try to be an influence and a guide for them. With his influence in my life, I decided to go into this field and just try to be somewhat of a beacon of hope for young men and young women and inspire them to do great things no matter what society may have done or what they may have done.

"Dr. Snow did not let my mistakes define me."

Snow also earned the respect of his co-workers.

"He was an old-school educator," said Chip Miller, transportation director for Decatur City Schools and former assistant principal at Austin High. "He was strict, but when it was time for him to lay down good advice to kids, he was able to do that also."

Miller worked alongside Snow at Austin High from 2002-07 and said Snow was crucial in driving troubled students toward success.

"He developed relationships with those kids and they're a lot better off now," Miller said. "He worked with them and they grew to be better people than they were."

Excel and Career Academies of Decatur Principal Ressa Chittam also remembered the kindness Snow showed students during her tenure at Austin High.

"We had a student who came to us in the ninth grade and she had recently lost her dad," Chittam said. "Don would call her in the office and was always checking on her and made sure he had her favorite candy in the office for her to eat."

13 years at Austin

Snow, 53, grew up in Marshall County and is an alumnus of both Auburn University and the University of Alabama. He and his wife Sonya married in 1991, and their 27-year-old daughter, Mary Beth, is an education doctorate student at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Snow began his career at Decatur City Schools as an eighth grade science teacher at the old Oak Park Middle School in 1991. He said it only took him a few years to become an assistant principal at that same school.

"From there, I moved to the alternative school as a supervisor," Snow said. "Then, I went to Austin (High) and I was at Austin (High) for 13 years."

Snow served his most treasured role as Austin High principal from 2003-16, but it did not come without challenges.

"It's a very demanding job. A high-school principal is almost a 24/7 job," Snow said. "It's a lot of hours. You have to be at every extracurricular and sporting event."

Snow has always been a firm believer in having rules and regulations and credits them for maintaining order in the schools where he has worked.

"If you have rules and consequences and adhere to them, most of the time kids will do what you expect them to do," Snow said. "Kids have got to know what is expected of them; if not, they are going to push the envelope."

Snow said the biggest change that he has seen in his 31 years of working in education has been the rise of technology and social media, something that he initially viewed as obstructive.

"In my mind, social media and cellphones have not always been a positive thing for the kids," Snow said. "There's a lot of potential there for it to be positive, but it takes a lot of time off of instruction when kids are using those things. I miss the good old days when no one had a phone."

Naked intruder

Snow said he will always remember an odd incident that happened in the Austin High School parking lot in 2013, one that brought the school system national attention when the HuffPost (then the Huffington Post) published an article about it.

"We had a guy show up on campus at Austin (High), strip off naked, and of course you had the whole school run up to the windows to try to watch that and I had to hold him in the parking lot until the law got there," Snow said.

Snow said it was revealed later that the man was dealing with serious mental illness.

Chittam served as Snow's assistant principal at the time and laughed as she remembered Snow's reaction to the naked man.

"It was a rainy day that afternoon and I really didn't know what was going on at the time," Chittam said. "Don just kept telling me to stay back and stay on the sidewalk."

Snow said he will spend his retirement selling real estate, working on his farm in Giles County, Tennessee, and participating in other outdoor activities such as hunting.

"My biggest regret as a high school principal is sometimes you don't get to deal with the real good kids because you're tied up with kids that are causing problems," Snow said. "You wish you got to know the good kids a little bit better that you didn't get to know."

wesley.tomlinson@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2438.