CHATTANOOGA, TN (WRCB)- In the nine-year history of a little-known high school, more than one thousand young people have earned diplomas, after getting a second chance at an education
It's been called the Adult High School, an alternative school, a vocational school, but it's officially Hamilton County High School, for students age 17-20 who for whatever reason did not succeed at their home school. At its graduation ceremony on May 18, it will again celebrate the success of those who were determined to finish school.
Rusty Johnson is two years older than most seniors who will get their diplomas next month. A childhood laced with drugs, trouble and tragedy got Johnson sidetracked from his studies. The large high schools that he previously attended didn't fit his style of learning. He felt lost in the shuffle. He was referred to Hamilton County High by a principal who felt he needed extra help to catch up and graduate.
Johnson said, "I'm not a big-school kind of guy. I really like the individual attention I get here. I feel like I'm learning more here than anywhere I've been. I'd recommend it to anybody."
Teachers say Johnson is among more than a hundred students each year who try out for Hamilton County High, in a series of applications and interviews that prove they're serious about finishing school, with no distractions.
Coordinator Mechaele Nebben, who helped establish the school in 2004, said, "We don't have dances, we don't have football teams, it's just students here with the teachers, and they're all pretty much focused on earning that diploma." Principal Gary Kuehn added, "We've helped students from every school in this county you can name, public and private. It takes special teachers to make this happen, and we have them."
Hamilton County High is considered one of the district's hidden gems, located in the old Harrison Bay Vocational School. There is no bus service; students have to provide their own transportation. Some call that an inconvenience, but others say it makes students prove their commitment.
Teacher Chris Monroe said, "I like that they have to work hard to get to school. They have to get here however they can. They buy into the program by getting themselves here, no one is giving them anything."
Monroe added, "It's a great school, I wish there was at least one more like it in another part of the county. It serves some students who need a second chance."
Johnson is excited about a graduation day he once thought would never come. He says he's delivering on a promise he made to his mother, before she passed away three years ago.
"I know my mother is looking down on me," he said. Right before she died, she said, please get your diploma, please finish high school. Coming here is one of the greatest decisions I've made."
When Johnson gets his diploma, he says his journey doesn't end there. His dream his to own his own tattoo shop, and he says he'll need some business expertise to succeed. He's determined to earn his college degree in business, starting at Chattanooga State, and finishing up at UTC. "These teachers have turned my life around, and I want to make them proud."