Hernando High strengthens ties that bind students and faculty

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BROOKSVILLE ó It turns out that Hernando High School chemistry teacher Noreen Shakut is a yoga enthusiast. Math teacher Gina Cabrera enjoys horses. English teacher Brenda Burback crochets. And physical science teacher Marie Dautruche likes line dancing.

For Hernando High administrators, highlighting the interests of these teachers and their colleagues was part of a concerted effort to strengthen relationships between teachers and students.

Principal Leechele Booker and her assistant principals recognized that by improving those relationships, the school could improve student attendance. So, they got to work putting a variety of plans into action.

Assistant principal Lorenzo Fields liked an idea espoused by Brooksville Elementary School principal Jill Renihan to pair high school students with elementary-aged ones. "She thought we could collaborate between the two schools," Fields said.

Even at the elementary level, students can grow disenchanted with school. Renihan, Fields explained, felt high school students could serve as mentors to her students. So every Tuesday, about a dozen Hernando students head over to the elementary school to encouragement and support for about an hour.

"The kids say that itís been rewarding," Fields said. "They are understanding how important their intervention can be."

Assistant principal Dan OíRourke has assembled his PIT (Peers In Training) Crew, based on an idea he learned about at a training session for exceptional student education.

Peers in Training is a creditĖearning course that also qualifies for Bright Futures credit. It pairs student mentors with fellow students struggling in school or enrolled in special education classes.

"They had to apply (and) get teacher references," OíRouke said of prospective mentors. Applicants were also required to have at least a 2.75 grade point average and good attendance. Of 40 students who were interviewed, 20 were chosen to mentor other students this first year. ESE/English teacher April LaBelle oversees the academics of the course.

Assistant principal Angela Miller Royal focused on attendance issues, especially during early-release days. Coupled with that problem, she noted declining participation rates in extracurricular activities. So at the beginning of the school year, Miller Royal presented staff with a way to address both issues. Itís an idea that has been well-received by both faculty and students.

Now, early dismissal days ó thereís usually one each month for teacher professional development ó are called "Club Connect." Students come to school and have an hour of academics followed by two sessions in interest clubs of their choice.

Before the first early release day this year, the school announced that students would go to a club fair to choose from over 50 club activities. That early release day saw attendance at about 90 percent.

Because of Hurricane Irma, the next early release in September was changed to a full school day to compensate for lost time. But the disappointment over losing club time was so widespread that Booker and Miller Royal amended the dayís schedule so students and teachers could still meet for a limited time in their clubs.

Besides the line dancers, students who crochet, the equestrians and the yoga enthusiasts, options include fishing, game design, puzzlemania, nutrition, table tennis, ultimate Frisbee, creative writing, car club, music theory, debate and vintage creations.

After the meetings, Miller Royal said, "I pulled aside a few kids and teachers and asked how it went. All the comments I received were positive. Iím excited. So far itís producing what I thought it would. All the kids are having an opportunity to participate and that makes my heart smile."

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