An NASSP Student Leadership Initiative

The Power of Engaging Students at Hart County High School

Kevin Gaines entered the halls of Hart County High School as principal in 2012. The graduation rate at the time was 76.8 percent, meaning they were losing almost 25 percent of our students. They knew they needed to focus their energy on the power of student engagement to motivate students to come to school.

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The Power of Engaging Students at Hart County High School

by Kevin Gaines

In the fall of 2012, I entered the halls of Hart County High School (HCHS) as principal. This was coming full circle, since I myself am a graduate of HCHS. First and foremost, my priority was to listen—and after listening to our stakeholders, I set out to engage our students. They needed to be engaged both inside and outside of the classroom. Our graduation rate at the time was 76.8 percent, meaning we were losing almost 25 percent of our students. We knew we needed to focus our energy on the power of student engagement to motivate students to come to school.

The first step in changing teachers and students’ attitudes was to look at our curriculum. I wanted to make sure students had a reason to show up. It took time and resources; we needed big upgrades in technology. We sought to expand our fine arts areas because we did not have a full-time fine arts teacher outside of band. We also began developing a STEM program to allow students to reach higher levels of math and science. This program has now expanded from STEM to STEAM—adding arts to the mix of science, technology, engineering, and math—and involves more than a third of ninth-grade class.

Additionally, we developed some new career pathways. We added engineering and computer science as well as culinary arts and marketing in an effort to ensure engagement for every student. If we can give students access to classes outside of traditional academia, such as culinary arts, then they have more reasons to come to school.

We also worked to open our College and Career Academy, which was a huge resource for engaging students. The academy works with our local technical college and local businesses. We now have student interns who are earning over $20 an hour, and some businesses are even offering to pay college tuition for those who come and work for them. Students can work on their welding or industrial maintenance certificate, or take college courses on-site, where they can complete over 30 academic college credit hours and never leave our campus. These opportunities have changed the game for our students, for our school, and for our community’s economic development.

The second thing we had to take a hard look at was what our students were doing outside of school. Our students needed constructive engagement longer than just from 8:05 a.m.–3:00 p.m. We felt that if we could get them involved outside of the school day, then we were much more likely to get them across the stage at graduation. I met with our clubs and advisers to make sure they understood that we were looking to get students engaged in our community.

One way we did this was by creating a fishing team. I knew we had hit the jackpot when more than a hundred people attended the first parent meeting. Students on the fishing team might not have to practice every day like other sports, but they do leave for tournaments at 4:00 a.m. on many a Saturday. We just had our first team member offered a college fishing scholarship.  Being located in the “Best little town by a dam site,” HCHS is the perfect location, and the number of sponsors included on the jerseys make these items collectible.

We have worked hard to give our students meaningful reasons to come to school—and it has paid off. That 76.8 percent graduation rate in 2012 is now 95.1 percent in 2018. I think you will agree with me that it is a testament to engaging students.

What is your school doing to engage your students?


Kevin Gaines is principal of Hart County High School in Hartwell, GA and a member of the NASSP Student Leadership Advisory Committee. Hart County is on the Georgia/South Carolina border and the only county in Georgia named after a woman.