BY MATT MACKINDER
Clarkston News Staff Writer
Gary Bigger has been in the alternative education realm for the past 20 years, and it’s that knowledge and passion that drew him to Renaissance High School as the school’s new principal.
“You know what it is, it’s about family,” said Bigger, who started in his position in late November. “The staff, the students, they just have a quality of family about them.”
Bigger, 51, steps in for Christa Fons, who took the position of director of shared services at the district’s central office.
He said he knew right away Renaissance was the place for him, and the unique interview process had him very engaged.
“The best part was they had a panel of students,” Bigger explained. “They got to ask questions. They wanted to get to know you. And one thing is, they’re very real. They’re very honest about their questions, and they weren’t given canned questions either. I think it was probably the best part of the interview, and that’s what kind of cemented the job for me.
“I really wanted to be here because I was able to develop a rapport with students right away, and I enjoyed that.”
Bigger previously worked at Atlantis High School in Flint for five years and the last 15 years at Lincoln Street Alternative in Birmingham.
“I’ll tell you this,” Bigger said. “When I was leaving my other job coming here, there’s a number of people that said, ‘Oh my gosh, the great community. It’s a wonderful place. Oh, my niece and nephew go to school there.’ Everybody just spoke so highly of the community and how the atmosphere here is just wonderful.”
Now hitting the ground running at Renaissance, Bigger said there are obvious challenges, but he wants to put his own stamp on the school while still building off what Fons put in place.
“What we do here is a little different than a typical school,” said Bigger. “In a typical school, you would want to set a vision and pull everything into it, but in alternative ed, I think what you do is you have to find a way to identify your student population needs, and you have to find ways to meet those needs.
“We have students that haven’t performed while in the traditional school, and they may need something different, which, alternative is different, right? I think what I really want to do, the most important thing, is to help kids see their potential.”
Bigger took in the annual Rensgiving dinner over the Thanksgiving holiday during his first week on the job and said the event opened his eyes to what the Clarkston community is all about.
“I will have to give Christa all due credit because she has developed an immense amount of relationships with organizations within the community,” Bigger said. “The community is so giving. People from Waypoint Church came in. They cooked all the food and served the students. Those things are fantastic, and I can’t even express how wonderful the community is to reach out to the students and want to provide them positive influences.”
Having admittedly barely graduating high school himself, Bigger said if he had an alternative high school at his disposal, he would have been there.
“I had those couple of teachers, though, that reached out to me because they could see the potential in me I couldn’t see myself at the time because I was young,” said Bigger. “I think what I realized at that point, when I came into alternative ed, is this is the place I need to be. And, this is the place I want to be because I want to help kids see the potential and what they can become.”
He wound up getting a scholarship for soccer to Bartlesville Wesleyan College (now Oklahoma Wesleyan University) and while in college, developed a love for education. He later earned a master’s in curriculum and teaching from Michigan State University and a master’s in education leadership from Madonna University. He went to Flushing High School for his first two years of high school and Romeo for his last two.
“Now when I look back, I can point directly to those few teachers who really took a little bit more time with me,” Bigger said. “I think that’s what we do in alternative ed. We take a little more time and a little more support and still push because they have to grow.”
Bigger lives in Swartz Creek. He has three children, Alexander, 26, Noah, 21, and Julia, 19, and a longtime girlfriend, Teresa Rogers, who is a social worker and department head at Seaholm High School in Birmingham. Julia is autistic, which makes Bigger working in alternative ed all the more up his alley.
Overall, Renaissance has 13 staff members and 134 students (upwards of 174 if ASD and special ed programs included).
When asked what will make this school year a successful one, Bigger did not hesitate in answering he can’t wait for early June.
“We see students graduate who were not on track to graduate, knowing we were able to provide the support system to help them learn,” he said. “Nothing is given. It all has to be earned because students don’t progress out into the world unless they learn that work ethic and you have to earn it. We provide is the support system to help them earn it.”
Bigger said seeing the underclassmen succeed is just as important.
“It’s about recovery,” he explained. “Are they making credit recovery? Are they making progressions forward? Are they passing classes that they were not able to pass before? Those are the things, the tangibles, and then the intangibles are if we are developing people who can go out into the world and do great things. Be great people who can be happy.”
He added, “can they be successful? Can they pay their bills? Can they do all those things life is really about because that’s what life is really about, being self-sufficient and being happy.”
While the term “alternative school” may not resonate with the casual individual, Bigger wants people to know Renaissance is a place where kids get a chance to figure out who they are.
“Renaissance is a valuable part of the district,” he said. “Clarkston is just such a welcoming place, and the school district is fabulous.”