Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Hillside High Steps it Up

I sat in anguish as Hans Lassiter made his pitch for more discipline at Hillside High School. The deep despair of the mother sitting next to me left me reflecting on the words I wrote late last year. I wrote about a culture at Hillside that made it difficult for the school to break free from the quicksand like spirit that kept some students stuck in a cycle of defeat.

The mother next to me begged for answers after getting word her son would not graduate this school year. Why didn’t she know, before now, that he lacked the credits to matriculate past his sophomore year? How did she not know that there were problems that required intervention? The shake of her leg and the tone of her voice exposed the angst of a mother who had trusted the school to do its part. She recognized her own failures. All of us did. I sat startled by the revelation and questioned my role in the process.

We needed solutions. Anger stirred within me as the truth of the past few years became even more apparent. I marveled at the serious lack of communication between guidance counselors and students. I was shocked to learn that no system was in place to prevent youth from falling between the cracks. I fought back tears as I listened to the uncovering of how it got to this point. Anger came close to exploding as I considered the potential of the student who had been left to fend for himself.

My ripening temper was calmed by the presence of the man sitting across from us. He talked of change at Hillside. He mentioned the stack of issues facing the school and vowed to make a difference. I had heard it all before. This felt like poles apart from the neat PR message coming from former leaders. Lassiter spoke of the need for discipline. He talked about ways of supporting students and parents. The despondency that walked into his office slowly faded as I began to see change coming. Not over night. Maybe it would take a few years, but I felt it-something was different.

It’s time to change the culture-he said. I’m trying to teach them not to accept low performance-he told us. It’s time for the school to rise past being on the bottom. I didn’t hear excuses. I didn’t hear a speech about how people on the outside have tainted the image of the school. Lassiter told the truth. The school is a mess. It needs to be fixed. The problem isn’t public perception, its academic performance rooted in a culture that has embraced mediocrity.

He had a plan. We both listened. Then something magical happened. Faith returned. Faith not only in the school, but faith in the student who had, for a season, gotten off track. This was not the end of the world. This too would pass, and, with the help of a large village, success was glaring us in the face. I shifted the focus away from the things that hurt. I was able to do that because of the strength of Lassiter. He brought a new focus, a new message and a determination to make a difference.

“What can I do,” I asked. I wanted to share the load. The difference was in what each of us would bring. It would take all of us admitting that part of the problem, when it comes to low performance, is related to our failure to connect to change. So, I vowed to be difference in the life of that student. One day at a time, every day. I vowed to connect like a member of the family, watching and supporting in a way that will prevent that fall through the cracks.

Change demands accountability. All of us must take a look at ourselves. The student, the parent, the school administration, the teachers involved and people like you and me. One student at a time, one day at a time, Lord please change this mess.


  1. Hi Carl,
    I am new to this blog but I have found it to be a good read. However, I find it interesting that people made comment after comment when negative things or opinions was the focus of the discussion but I see no comments as a result of your positive comments regarding the new principal.
    I am a parent of a 2010 graduate, a 2014 graduate, I am also a graduate of Hillside. My parents, 1granparent(c/o 42), as well as a host of aunts, uncles and cousins that also graduated from Hillside. With that said, Hillside is close to my heart.
    With any thing, its easy to focus on a negative incident here and there and people can speak on it for days. Fights and bad behavior happens at almost every traditional high school, its not an exclusive thing for HHS. I remember the news media riding by the school every afternoon in the early 90's just to see if something happend. We've always had a bad rap, even though the same incidents happen at other schools. Its just not publicized. A Jordan parent mention to me just last week that students were handcuffed and remove from Jordan after the drug dogs went through, I didn't hear that in the media, however when it happened at HHS, I received several emails of the news article. If you look at the NC Report Card website, you will see that Northern, Jordan, Riverside and Southern all had more incidents of acts of violence than HHS this pass school year but people usually fail to make those comparisons. As for preparation for testing, there isn't an equal comparison. I learned at a parent meeting that HHS didn't have the funding to have a SAT prep course like some other schools in the system, that means...kids/parents have to find resources outside of school, pay for prep classes or hope the school is able to offer a free course that may span over 3 days, where as other schools offer a semester long course. You also have to compare the people, being realistic, if the majority of your students have parents who are financially comfortable, they are not experiencing the same disadvantages and struggles with academic resources and tools that many of the kids face at HHS. There aren't even enough books for each child to take home.
    I think Mr. Lassiter has a vested interest from the heart to make the necessary improvements at the school. I'm beginning to see that already. I encourage you to pitch your ideas again to him, don't give up. People have their minds in the right place to help the HHS students, we just have to make more time to be actionable. HHS is not listed as low performing anymore (Northern is) so we've made progress, but we will be fighting that stigma for several years, that's what people remember because it was so publicized.
    Last but not least, lets get some blogs our there that talk about the student and school successes, there are alot of them. We have kids traveling to England to study over the summer, full academic scholarships being awarded, 100% acceptance to schools that IB students apply to, and a great graduation rate for students in AVID. Its up to us, those who are involved with the school to put the good word out, let us not leave the behind the students who are doing the right thing, making the sucess stories in the face of disadvantages and bad reputations, don't over look them, they can become the talk and face of the school, if we allow it. Let's not allow them to be hidden from the public eye and thrust those who do not currently possess the best image (for what ever reasons) into the lime light. Let's not generalize the negative and make all students bare that cross, when they don't deserve it. Let's make the media report on the good things or at least be fair, what's reported about one school, should be reported about all.

  2. As a teacher at Hillside, I can attest to the cultural shift taking place this year. Teachers and students alike are working hard to meet the high expectations that Mr. Lassiter has communicated in his clear, encouraging, and inclusive manner. Thank you for writing this post about the growth and promise you have seen at the school.