In his first year as principal of Thomson High School, Rudy Falana was booed by the students.
In his second year, he was cheered, Assistant Principal Mike Smallwood recalled.
Falana's implementation of a dress code, an ID requirement and other policies were not popular. But it didn't take him long to win the respect of students, Smallwood said.
Falana announced last week that he is leaving the school after seven years to become principal of Burke County Middle School. Like baseball coach Jason Osborn, Falana is departing McDuffie County for family reasons. Falana's wife, Annie, teaches at Burke Middle.
"We have a new grandbaby that lives with us. She's going to need some extra care, and we need to be there for her," Falana said in an interview with The McDuffie Mirror.
He leaves behind a record of success. During his time as principal, the school's graduation rate has risen from 56.4 percent to 85.4 percent, he said.
"I am most proud of that," he said.
Test scores also have improved, he said.
Falana cites higher expectations for students, a more rigorous curriculum and the dedication of the school's teachers.
"He really has demanded the best from everybody," Smallwood said.
"He was committed to doing things the right way."
He recognized student success, by passing out T-shirts to students who passed all five parts of the graduation test, for example. He implemented credit recovery and extended semester programs so that failing students could earn passing grades and go on to win their diplomas.
"Very few statements begin with 'I,' " Smallwood said.
Falana would travel to away basketball, football and baseball games so that others on the school's staff could spend more time with their families, he said.
"He did a good job of making everybody feel safe, not just physically but psychologically," Smallwood said.
"He's going to be a hard act to follow."
Superintendent Jim LeBrun also praised Falana.
"His leadership and service will no doubt be missed," the schools chief said in a prepared statement. "I greatly value Mr. Falana as a critical member of my team. I support his decision and wish him and his family much success and happiness."
A 35-year veteran of education, Falana came to Thomson High after seven years as principal of Screven County High School.
He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he ran track and played football as a wide receiver in the early 1970s.
However, "he's all about academics," Smallwood said.
What will Falana miss most?
The friendliness of the high school, its teachers, he said, and "I love my students."