Before the last school year began, Superintendent of Dawson County Schools Dr. Damon Gibbs wanted to see changes made at Hightower Academy. He wanted to see the school open for more students, in an effort to make it more available to meet the needs of kids in Dawson County.
Hightower offers services of varying degrees to high school kids. That can include anything from repairing and recovering credits to working around a nontraditional student schedule, according to Assistant Principal of Dawson County High School Brody Hughes.
"We had an increase in the number of students that were coming for one or two classes instead of traditionally if you came to Hightower you enrolled fulltime here, you were here all day long," said Hughes.
"We ran buses back and forth for two periods this last year, which allowed students to still take courses at the high school in those elective classes... but they were coming here to get caught up on their credits too."
The school moved to a 100 percent online model last year to give students flexibility and ownership of their work. The online work proved to be beneficial, but did come with drawbacks.
"We moved to 100 percent online this past year and I think it would be fair to say with alternative education, nontraditional, we are on that cutting edge of what's new in education so constantly trying new things," Hughes said.
As with any new technique or technology, there is a learning curve and what the staff learned is that the students still need that face-to-face time that may not always come with a fully online program.
They are now working on a model that will use online learning, but with the right balance of teacher taught classes-particularly in areas that demand more face-to-face instruction.
"It is very difficult to learn math via a computer, especially if you are already struggling in that area," Hughes said.
Hughes has a unique and intimate knowledge of Hightower as he taught there for four years.
"I am the only one that had the opportunity to work here and now as an administrator, I kind of understand the ins and outs of Hightower."
With that insight comes the ability to help find creative ways to meet needs and encourage students.
Along with Assistant Principal Anita Cox and a new fulltime counselor, Hughes is hoping to see continued success as they adjust to meet students' needs.
"They need support and we are hoping the fulltime counselor will be able to provide that character building, how to behave in certain situations," Hughes said.
"The mentality of a lot of our community is that Hightower is our trouble kids or our discipline kids rather. That's not the case," said Gibbs during a recent school board meeting. "That's a piece of that, but 90 plus percent of students that attend there on a daily basis are just truly non-traditional students."
The new counselor will be an advocate for the students, offering conferences and accountability.
This year will also see a new online program, Edgenuity, that will give students access to teaching videos with specific instruction on an individual basis.
"So there are actual teachers teaching the concepts. Then the kids get to watch that and listen to that so it's more of a blended, guess you could call it a face-to-face online model," he said.
"It is constantly evolving from one year to the next."
Ultimately Hughes and the staff are seeking to ensure that students graduate and find success.
"Research shows that if a kid gets behind in ninth grade, the likelihood of them graduating drops significantly," he said. "So if we don't have some sort of safety net to get them caught back up and back in line with their peers, then you know we've already lost before we got started."