When Missy Hensley was informed in January that 51 Harrisonburg High School seniors were not on track to graduate, she and associate principal Lisa Warren jumped into problem-solving mode.
Warren suggested to the HHS principal that maybe the solution was in a program that already existed at the school — the Summit program for ninth- and 10-graders who were struggling in the regular classroom setting.
The Summit program consists of a teacher for each core subject area, an administrator and a counselor, and is meant to be an alternative to regular classroom instruction.
Seeing the dire need facing seniors who expressed reluctance to come back to school if they did not graduate on time, Hensley took the pool of ninth- and 10-graders and put them back in the general school population.
The seniors who were behind then took the spots in the Summit program. For a number of these students, the reason they had fallen behind on credits is because they work jobs to help support their families, Hensley said. A lot of those students work night shifts and then don’t come to school the next morning because they are sleeping.
Knowing that these students needed a different approach to learning and getting their work done, Hensley and Warren made the Summit program resemble an employment situation more than a classroom one. Students were allowed to set their own hours between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., with a minimum three-hour “shift” per day. They were informed of their responsibilities to show up on time, act professional, use appropriate language and conduct themselves with integrity.
If students failed to meet the criteria of their contract, they sat down with a counselor or an administrator to reset goals.
“They were given solid parameters and learned skills they would need after graduating, like setting goals and meeting deadlines,” Hensley said.
Of the 51 students who began the Summit program in January, 41 graduated on time. Of the 10 who didn’t, eight are on track to graduate after completing summer school. Only two did not earn credits and are not coming back in the fall.
Hensley said the division plans to continue this model for the Summit program this fall and will expand it to include juniors and seniors. She also wants to partner with businesses and create mentorships for students.
What began as a “Band-Aid” model to address an immediate need will expand into a model that will carry the school into the future.
“We’re really excited about it,” Hensley said.