Hensley settles into principal role, sets goals for future

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Holly Bill

Melissa Hensley works on her computer during her first week as new principal of HHS in summer 2019.

At the start of the 2019-2020 school year, Harrisonburg High School saw the addition of many new faces in the hallways, including the new head of school, Melissa Hensley. This past January marked the end of Hensley’s first semester at HHS as principal. 

“I’ve really enjoyed getting to know students, faculty and the community [here],” Hensley said. “[I’ve also enjoyed] having an opportunity to get out and go to events that students are participating in to learn more about the Harrisonburg culture and things that are important to the students and staff here. It’s been really good and really fun.”

Before coming to HHS, Hensley worked as principal of Central High School in Shenandoah County, a high school whose size and demographic is very different from HHS.

“[At Central,] we had 800 [students] and here we have roughly 1900 [students] which is exciting to me. I really like the large numbers of students and folks in the building,” Hensley said. “There’s more program opportunities here which I think students and staff are very fortunate to have. At Central, we couldn’t offer them. We just had too limited staff and not enough students to fill up all of those programs.”

The large, diverse student body is both intriguing and challenging for Hensley to learn about, as HHS’ students come from different cultural backgrounds that impact how they perceive expectations.

“Wherever students have come from, whether they’re local or from across the globe, I find it really fascinating to learn about the different cultures and different places our students have been and come from,” Hensley said. “I think that has been a challenge for me because I have not had the opportunity to do that in the past. I think my vision and my lens has widened just from working with different students and different circumstances”

In addition to learning about the diversity of HHS from working with and observing the student body, Hensley has also taken note of how welcoming the school community is as a whole in embracing one another.

“I think I’m just pleasantly surprised from the openness of our staff and community to embrace everybody that’s here. I don’t see where there’s a lot of outlier groups that aren’t connected somewhere,” Hensley said. “The way that the student body interacts and embraces each other has been very interesting for me to watch the dynamics of. It’s a very blessed building in that way.”

As Hensley has built relationships with students and staff in the building, she has been listening to what the community believes the administration and faculty is and is not addressing in the school. She believes that both this and persevering after failure is the pathway to growth in the school. 

“I feel like we learn the most when we fail. If we’re not failing, we’re not pushing the boundaries hard enough. I’m continuing to try and send that message to [the] staff. [I tell them to] listen to the students,” Hensley said. “I get a sense at times that some of the students and staff feel that failure isn’t acceptable, but that’s really where we learn the most. While I haven’t accomplished it yet, I think we’re making progress and discussions about taking risks and doing something different in the classrooms.” 

Individual student successes that result from taking such risks both in and out of the classroom is something Hensley has made her goal to celebrate.

“We have our scholars who are achieving at very high levels, and there are systems in place to reward them, [but] one of the things that’s [also] on my radar is [if we are] rewarding the students who have made great improvements [and those] who have done great things in their community,” Hensley said. “[I want to] broaden that lens a little bit to really reach out and make sure that we’re recognizing all the really good things that go on here that fly under the radar. I think it’s really important that we don’t forget that everybody has a journey and that those successes may be different but should also be celebrated.”

At the end of this school year, Hensley has made it her goal to not only commemorate these student achievements, but also make sure that every senior of the class of 2020 walks across the stage this June.

“A large goal right now [is] making sure that our seniors are in a spot where they have an opportunity to graduate on time. Certainly, they can come to summer school and finish up in August, but I can’t give [them] back the experience of graduating with [their] class,” Hensley said. “We have some students who fell behind at some point in their academic career and others who have senioritis. Keeping good tabs on the senior class right now while also monitoring the rest of the students [is important to me].”

One way Hensley has been keeping tabs on not only the senior class, but all HHS students is through the new tardy policy implemented at the beginning of second semester. The first semester of the 2019-2020 school year saw 29,000 tardies, and while Hensley does not like many rules, she refuses to let students opt out of their education. 

“[The policy was about] getting everybody just to move with a purpose and be where they are supposed to be when they’re supposed to be there. If you look at any data or research, it’s going to tell you that a high school dropout is not going to be able to attain the level of employment that is going to get them above the poverty lines,” Hensley said. “I grew up in poverty, so I have a special affinity for education and where it can take people to. It doesn’t matter if that’s college, a trade school or directly into the workforce, but having that education is something nobody can take from you. You have that skill set to empower you to get you where you’re supposed to be.”

While this policy has generated backlash from students for being much stricter than the tardy consequences last semester, it is still the most lenient policy in the region. However, once students can take responsibility for their actions and their education, Hensley hopes that HHS will get to a point in which the hallways will become more open.

“I want [students] to have choices and I want [them] to have a voice in what goes on in school, but to get to that point, we need people moving with a purpose. [They need to be] where they’re supposed to be [and checking] in with teachers. Once we get to establishing that culture, then we can start to release [this policy],” Hensley said. “We won’t need these consequences the way that they’re aligned right now, in my opinion. [We want students to say,] ‘I want my education; it’s important to me.’ Hopefully, we get to that point. I would like to see the building more open to allowing students to move with a purpose.”

So far, the new tardy policy has been effective in its goal to get and keep students in class. This has enabled administration to have more personal conversations with those who are recurrently tardy, which is where Hensley hopes to get in regards to the entire tardy policy as a whole. 

“We’re getting numbers now that are much lower. We’re able to have more meaningful conversations with students about why [they are tardy]. In some instances, we’re able to make adjustments,” Hensley said. “We’re listening to our students on an individual basis. I really want to get to a point where students are able to self manage. We can have that conversation [about being late to class] and not have it repeat itself every day. That’s where we want to be. You guys are young adults.”

Student conversations and student voice is a major pillar to Hensley’s philosophy of how a high school should be run. With a student ambassador program in the works, Hensley hopes to achieve more of this to make school a place where students really want to be. 

“We hear too often from certain segments of our population that school is not for them. I really want to [create] open a forum to give them the floor to tell us what [they] need, what makes school fun again [and] what makes learning fun again,” Hensley said. “[We want to give them] something that’s really addressing their needs and makes them want to be here, come to school everyday and be engaged in their learning. I really want to hear from them as to what are the factors.”

Hensley also wants to give the student body more voice when it comes to promoting HHS and its students, too. 

“In my experiences in the past, we have turned over the social media for the school to the students. It reached a pinnacle of highlighting what’s happening in the school that’s great when it was students who were running it,” Hensley said. “[Students] know great things about teachers who have helped students that we should be highlighting. [Students] know things about each other that are certainly worthy of highlighting, too. Adults are never going to be able to highlight that in the way that you all can. More ownership of the student body being deeply engaged and running the building is a direction I would like to eventually move in.”

Increased student involvement, including student control of the school’s social media, is a goal of Hensley’s during her future at HHS. As someone who grew up in the vicinity of HHS, Hensley wants the school to live up to its legacy of an engaged student body.

“I want to see our student body engage in the after school events and in classes,” Hensley said. “When I went to Spotswood High School, everybody wanted to be at Harrisonburg High School. It was always seen as being the pinnacle of the high schools. I want our student body and faculty to feel like that’s who we are here. We have a strong community, [and] we provide a great education for students.”

The HHS community has helped Hensley feel at home in the building, and while she continues her time here, she hopes to achieve her goals of encouraging a more involved, empowered student body. 

“I really am honored and feel very privileged to be a part of this community. I feel like this has been a great place for me to come to. It’s very quickly becoming home for me,” Hensley said. “I’ve had a couple people come up to me and say, ‘You fit well here.’ I hope to build on those things that have caused people to say that. I want to stay for awhile. I will really strive to continue to try to build that [community].” 

 

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