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West Hall is family for new middle school principal
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New West Hall Middle School principal Ethan Banks chats with a group of sixth-graders Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018, in the hallways between classes.

Ethan Banks has his wife, Heather, to thank for a blossoming career in education as the new principal of West Hall Middle School.

“I saw her passion for kids (as a teacher at Oakwood Elementary), and I had the same passion,” he said.

Banks, 44, studied pre-med at the University of Georgia, becoming the first member of his family to graduate from college.

“I always was going to be a doctor,” he said, attributing his love for science and medicine to a teacher at Johnson High School in Hall County, where he graduated in 1992.

But his mother’s prolonged illness, and his desire to support her, kept him from pursuing that path.

“Med school was just not a good option for me at that time,” Banks said.

He then began working full time as a special events planner, in sales and as operations director for a lucrative business. Ten years passed. He met his wife.

The most satisfaction he gained from working in special events was training teenagers and young people in their roles at the company, Banks said.

He then began to think, “… You know what? I really need to do something with my degree.”

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West Hall Middle School students stream past principal Ethan Banks in the hallways between classes Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018. Banks is a product of the Hall County School system graduation from Johnson High in 1992.

Banks returned to UGA and earned a master’s degree that led him to West Hall High as a science teacher. He also coached football before moving into an administrative role as assistant principal and athletic director.

“I knew education was for me and I’ve never looked back,” he said.

Now, Banks has something entirely new to look forward to.

“If I ever moved anywhere, it was going to be here,” he said of West Hall Middle.

With his wife teaching at Oakwood Elementary, and raising three daughters in the local West Hall community, Banks and his family had established roots that he had no desire to rip up.

Banks kind of assumed he’d just stay at the high school until retirement came calling, he said.

But when the principal’s position at the middle school opened earlier this year with the departure of Rodney Stephens, Banks saw “an opportunity to see these kids three years younger and try to impact them. It was a great opportunity to serve and see the whole school.”

After 13 years at the high school, Banks made his way across the parking lot.

“The pleasant surprise was everybody here was so welcoming,” he said. “Change is not easy. Teachers are creatures of habit.”

Because of his experience at the high school, Banks feels equipped to prepare the middle school students for what they can expect when they matriculate.

For example, West Hall High offers a rigorous International Baccalaureate Diploma, as well as a World Scholars program that offers advanced study in a second language, primarily Spanish. 

Many of the students at West Hall Middle, which is now majority-minority with over 50 percent of enrollees from Latino households, will feed into these programs. 

“This school, when it was first opened, was very affluent,” Banks said. “We didn’t have the economically disadvantaged numbers that we do now. We didn’t have the ethnic diversity that we do now.”

But that diversity is something to be celebrated, Banks said, and he hopes to do so by hosting an “international night” at the school this fall to engage students’ families.

Between language barriers, lack of transportation and work schedules, Banks said he and his team must make a concerted effort to reach parents who want to be involved in the school and their children’s education, but who lack some of the resources to be fully engaged.

Banks said his goal is to develop students into “total learners,” impacting them socially and academically, and preparing them for success in and out of the classroom.

“There is such a possibility and opportunity for impact at that age,” he added. “If we’re not preparing our kids for life outside these four walls, then we’re not doing our job.”

Most students at West Hall Middle come from Oakwood and Flowery Branch elementary schools, as well as Chicopee Woods, Lyman Hall and McEver Arts Academy. 

There are about 850 students enrolled at West Hall Middle this year. 

“West Hall is family,” Banks said. “I’m just in a different building now. I get to see the kids when they’re a little bit smaller.” 

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New West Hall Middle School principal Ethan Banks, a 1992 graduate of Johnson High, and studied pre-med at the University of Georgia before focusing on education.