SOA – Reflections

In the world of education, July is the page turning month; the month that starts with a deep exhale and some relaxation then ends with the opening of schools once again for teachers and students.  July is a time to look back on the successes of the previous school year, fine tune what worked well, and change what didn’t.  It’s a time for everyone in the district to catch their collective breath before the wave of teaching and learning begins to build anew.

Over the course of a week in June, each principal in Haywood County Schools (HCS) sat down and reflected on the 2021-2022 school year.  They discussed the challenges of the first year of full, in-person learning since 2018-2019.  They reflected on their school’s academic successes and looked honestly at areas of needed improvement.  Each principal, without exception, praised their faculty and staff and understood the challenges that come with being a classroom teacher.  They also discussed tangible ways to positively impact learning during the 2022-2023 school year.  

Every school leader and every school brings something unique to the district of HCS.  From Anderson Early Childhood Center all the way to Haywood High School, the buildings and staff that make each school what it is are shaped by the administrative teams on each campus and the invaluable work that each classroom teacher performs every single day.  

The Student Options Academy (SOA) in Haywood County isn’t your traditional school.  At the SOA, students work at their own pace as they learn and progress toward post secondary success.  Students are also able to work part-time jobs and attend school in a way that fits their schedule.  

For the last few years, Grover Harwell has led the SOA.  That time has to come to a close, however, as Grover accepted a job as the principal of Humboldt Junior and Senior High.  It’s an opportunity that was well-deserved. Before leaving, though, Grover sat down and reflected on his last year in HCS – a year that was challenging for most schools, but a year that was vastly rewarding for the SOA.

“Students were excited to be back at school after the pandemic.  They were also really excited about being back on the computers.  They could work at their own pace,” he said. 

For students, there was much of a change from what their normal schedule would have been at SOA.

“Last year was fun,” Grover said.  “I really liked being with the students and being around the students.  We didn’t have a lot of adjustments at SOA – seniors came Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and underclassmen came Tuesday and Thursday.  That’s our normal schedule, so students didn’t have to adjust to a five day a week school week.”

Since the acclimation to full time learning was a little easier at SOA than other schools, Grover and his staff were able to continue their student-centered approach seamlessly.  One of his favorite stories is about a student he met when he first became principal at SOA.  

“We had a student who got a full ride to Tennessee State University.  He was here when I first started, and his dream was to go to TSU.  And, to see that dream fulfilled for him was definitely a highlight of this year.,” Grover said.  “I remember when he told me when he wanted to go to TSU a few years ago, we bought TSU cups and banners and shirts and kept that goal in front of him the whole time.”

Success at SOA can also look different for different students.  While one student’s goal was TSU, another student just wanted to be prepared for the workforce by the time he left SOA.  Getting to that point was an uphill battle, though.

“We had another student here who wasn’t allowed on campus, so he came here.  We eventually brought him back on campus at SOA.  We got him his credits and he graduated and he got a job at Haywood Company right after graduation.  He’s working there now, driving a forklift,” Grover explained.  “We always tell our students that they’re still writing their story, that their stories aren’t finished.”

The student centered approach at SOA has paid dividends for students.  The approach starts early and necessitates knowing the goals of each student at SOA.

“We ask our students all the time – ‘What do you want for yourself?’.  It’s about our students and what they want and desire and we want to set them up for their success,” Grover said.

Grover also knows how different success can look depending on the person.  

“Success looks very different.  Success isn’t always a certain letter grade or a standardized test score.  Success can be graduating and getting a job right out of school.  It can be going to TCAT.  It can be going to a four year university.  Success isn’t a one size fits all category,” he explained.

One way that the SOA encourages success for students is by emotionally investing in those students and supporting them as they pursue personal success.

“We’re big on celebrations here at SOA.  We celebrate birthdays of our students; we celebrate when our students complete the program.  It’s a big deal.  We want them to know they’re unique,” Grover said.

Not only are the students at SOA unique, the school itself is incredibly unique.  As mentioned several times in this piece, the SOA accommodates their students in a way that sets them up for success regardless of what that success looks like.  It also allows students to learn the skills necessary for balancing responsibilities in their everyday lives.

“If I had to pick one thing about SOA that makes it unique it’s that students can work and come to school at the same time.  If a student needs to help support their family and work a part-time job, they can come to school in the morning and then go to work and get paid in the afternoon.  It teaches students how to balance education and work and setting priorities,” Grover explained.

What Grover and his staff have set up at the SOA has truly been beneficial to the community in Haywood County.  It has allowed students to have second chances; it has given students the freedom to succeed.  

A few weeks ago, Grover accepted a job as the new principal of Humboldt Junior and Senior High School.  His time in Haywood County Schools was coming to an end.  For Grover, Haywood County is home and HCS has been the only district in which he’s taught and impacted the lives of students.  And much like Grover loved to support his students’ growth, the time has come for his own growth and advancement.

“Haywood County is the only place I’ve taught.  I grew up here.  It feels different to be thinking about a different school and a different town where I’ll work, but the vision is going to be the same; the work is going to be the same.  I want to make sure kids in Humboldt have every opportunity to be successful.  I’m excited about Humboldt, but I’ll always bleed purple,” he said.

In the end, Grover knows – like his students – that he also needed support to be successful.

“As an administrator, I’ve learned that you can’t do it by yourself.  You have to have the right team around you that believes in the vision.  I don’t like to micromanage; I like to hire smart people and let them do their job.  I just want my team to grow and flourish,” he said.  

Thank you for your time investing in HCS and our students, Coach Harwell.  You will be missed in Haywood County.