How One Georgia High School is Burning Down Barriers and Beating the Odds
By Scotty Brewington
Though many families in Chattooga County, set in rural northwest Georgia, may struggle financially, poverty hasn’t negatively impacted the county’s high school graduation rate. This small, close-knit mill community’s single high school graduates 92% of its students.
Over 72% of Chattooga High School’s 850 students receive free and reduced lunch, yet 92% of its senior class – 179 students – graduated this past spring.
What’s their secret?
“We work in close partnership with the community through our relationships with the kids at this school,” said Jeff Martin, Chattooga High School’s principal. “It’s very important to us that these kids – and their parents – know we care about them.”
This dedication to the community comes straight from the top. The district’s superintendent, Jim Lenderman, graduated from Chattooga High School in 1972, then left to join the Marine Corp. He returned in 2008 as the high school’s assistant principal and athletic director and served as principal before becoming schools superintendent in 2011.
It was then, Martin said, that things really began to change.
“We had other superintendents who stayed for a few years, but there was no real consistency,” said Martin. “When Jim came back, he really started working on ways to address the discipline issues and empower our teachers.”
When Lenderman took charge of the district, discipline became a major focus. The first year, there were 1,300 discipline “write-ups” at Chattooga High School, Martin said. The following year, that number dropped to 300.
The key, according to Martin, is giving teachers complete control of their classrooms so that they can ultimately take ownership of the school.
“I clear their path, but the teachers are in control of the school,” said Martin. “We don’t tolerate any disrespect. We’re not just preparing kids for a test, but for the workplace as well. We care about them and want them to be successful.”
But radical change didn’t come easy. Just two months after Lenderman returned to Chattooga County, his house was burned down. The tragedy only strengthened his resolve to improve the community he and Jeff Martin – and many of the district’s teachers – had called home most of their lives.
“After that, when I stayed, the students and the community knew we weren’t going to quit and they started getting on board,” said Lenderman. “We all chose to come back to this county and give back to these kids. For us, this community is one big family.”
Lenderman helped the high school identify borderline discipline issues, which ultimately led to the creation of Chattooga Academy, a “school within a school” focused on helping struggling students graduate. The first year there were six graduates of the academy. Last year, it graduated 27 students.
“The academy focuses on kids who will not graduate unless something is done,” said Martin. “If a student wants to graduate, we do everything we can to make sure they have what they need to get their diploma.”
The school also has an esteemed Career, Technical and Agricultural Education (CTAE) program that has won national championships in small business repair and auto body repair. The program has produced several small business owners and engineers, as well as many expert welders and other skilled workers.
On the other end of the academic spectrum, the high school has also implemented several “dual enrollment” courses that enable students to receive college credit.
“We have many kids who leave our school with skills to go out into the workforce. We put the same emphasis on those things as we do our college-bound students,” said Lenderman. “Our motto is ‘Expect Success.’ We expect your child to do the work, graduate and get a good job.”
The school also works with community and civic organizations to provide students with basic needs like food over the weekends and during summer break. All Chattooga County schools maintain food pantries and participate in a community backpack program that discreetly sends food home with students over the weekend.
The district also runs a federally funded feeding program during the summer, providing sack lunches to area students.
Students who are identified as “at risk” in middle school can also join the Jobs for Georgia Graduates (JGG) program, which pairs students with community volunteer projects throughout their four years of high school. The JGG program has had a 100% graduation rate since its inception eight years ago.
This level of administrative and community support has empowered teachers to make a real difference in their students’ lives.
“From my perspective, I think I have the best teaching job in the state,” said Shane Tucker, an English and literature teacher at Chattooga High School for 23 years. “I have access to all the resources I need and am allowed to teach without having to worry about distractions. When an administrator comes into my classroom, there is no intimidation. The attitude is, ‘How can I help?’ That makes teaching really fun.”
Lenderman credits the strong sense of community for Chattooga High School’s success and loyalty runs deep. Lenderman, Martin and Tucker are all graduates of the school, as is the county commissioner, the sheriff, and most of the Chattooga Board of Education including its chairman, Eddie Massey.
“The teachers here won’t let anyone fall through the cracks,” said Massey. “It’s a struggle for them, but they all meet it head on. We are very proud of our teachers. A lot of us have lived here all of our lives so we have a vested interest.”
Lenderman is a familiar face around the district, visiting classrooms on a daily basis and building relationships with students, teachers, parents and grandparents in the community. He comes to the high school during lunch everyday.
This year’s district’s theme – is simple: Decide, Commit, Succeed.
“These kids are our future and I treat them like my own grandchildren. They know me. I build relationships with them so that when I tell them something, they listen to me,” Lenderman said. “Every child is my child and I expect every teacher to look at that the same way. You will do things differently if you look at every child as your own.”
Part of that relationship is not allowing students to be victims of their circumstances but instead holding them – as well as teachers, parents and administrators – accountable. For Lenderman, it all starts with attitude.
“In too many schools, if you get out of the box, you get fired,” he said. “I tell everyone – you have the authority to try anything you can. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else. Get out of the box. There is no box. We burned the box.”