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Academy looks to increase numbers
Students, faculty adjust to new digs
Hightower pic
Middle grades teacher Melissa Gilstrap in her new classroom at the recently constructed Hightower Academy. - photo by James G. Wolfe Jr. Dawson Community News

A new setting has the potential to completely change a person's outlook, just ask the faculty at Hightower Academy.

The school moved into a new $2.4-million, 15,000-square-foot facility behind Dawson County Middle School in April and the reaction from both staff and students was immediate.

"It's been wonderful, just great," Kay Conner, the paraprofessional work-based coordinator at the school, said. "It's helped the students out because they are very proud of the new building. It's given them more confidence."

The facility features oversized classrooms, an outdoor education area, half-court basketball facility and, for those students who may have trouble with guaranteeing clean clothing or regular bathing facilities, a washer, dryer and shower.

The school currently has an enrollment of about 50 students, but Principal Anthony Guisasola said he expects that to pick up after Labor Day.

"We had 78 last year and our goal is to consistently be over 100," he said.

Guisasola said that the faculty and staff are finally adjusting to the new building.

"We're finally getting all of the bugs out," he said. "Jerry Randolph, the education program specialist for alternative schools with the Georgia Department of Education, came and toured the facility. He said our facility is the standard; it's what all alternative schools should strive to be."

Of the original employees of the first alternative school in Dawson County, called Crossroads School, Ann Welling and Stan Worley remain. Welling serves as the school's bookkeeper, among many other duties, and Worley is currently the school's counselor, after serving 14 years as principal of the school.

While the school still receives some students in need of disciplinary action, the reason the school was initially founded, Guisasola said that number is now less than 10 percent of the student population.

"Our students are mostly those seeking credit recovery or credit acceleration," Guisasola said. "In fact, we had two young ladies last year who graduated a year early with their certified nursing assistant license from Lanier Tech, thanks to dual-enrollment."

The school's goals are focused on providing an education for those students who might otherwise have dropped out of public school at 16 years old in order to go to work, according to Guisasola.

"[Worley] used to say: ‘It's not their last chance, it's our last chance,' and I really think that's true," he said. "It's all about trying to help the students graduate work-ready by adapting the education to the student, not forcing the student to adapt to the education."

Guisasola was quick to point out that the school is not necessarily easy.

"The rigor is there, it's not easy, it's hard," he said. "But with some time and dedication, it's more than doable."

Guisasola spoke of one 16-year-old student who was supposed to have accumulated 22 hours of credit at that point of his education.

The student only has nine-and-a-half.

"But he can still graduate on time, if he applies himself," Guisasola said.

According to Guisasola, a large part of credit losses comes from frustration.

"Let's say a student needs to pass 25 chapters to get a passing grade in a class," he said. "By the end of the semester, they've only completed 22 of those chapters, that means they fail the class and have to start over the next semester, students don't want to do that, so they get frustrated and give up."

Guisasola said at Hightower, that student would be able to continue on during the next semester, finish the incomplete chapters, and earn the credit without starting over.

"It's more of a masterly model," Guisasola said. "We want them to master the material, so when they finish it, they get the credit."

Guisasola added that the entire focus of the school is for students to graduate high school and be able to immediately go to work.

"So we have the same rules here that you would have at your job," he said. "We're trying to teach them everything from how to dress to go for a job interview, to what is appropriate to discuss at work."

"Our job," he concluded, "is to do everything in our power to put these kids in the best situation possible when they leave our halls, so that is what we strive for."