Top of the Class: Howard High School's Hayle Mack breaks through after cycles of school changes

Howard School valedictorian Hayle Mack poses for a portrait on the Lookout Mountain Conservancy's property on Wednesday, June 5, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hayle Aliese Mack never struggled with the school part. It was everything else that snagged her.

She was intelligent and competitive, and she succeeded in advanced classes with older students. But when she enrolled at The Howard School, teachers noticed she wasn't interested in teamwork. Group projects weren't for her. She kept her head down.

"I just hated going sometimes," she said of school. "It was irritating. I disassociated myself from everybody. It kind of made it worse."

But over four years, architecture and engineering design teacher Japho Hardin noticed Mack mature. She enlisted in almost a dozen extracurricular activities, took part in after-school team competitions and gave a speech at the unveiling of Howard's Future Ready Institute. (She doesn't remember who asked her to give the speech, just that someone tapped her with five minutes' notice to go before the assembled local media.)

Last month, Mack graduated not only as the class valedictorian but as the school's Ms. Senior, an award voted on by the faculty based on grades, class attendance, participation in extracurricular activities and (a lack of a) disciplinary record.

Mack said the biggest key to her growth was time - and stability. When she reached ninth grade, she had attended six schools. Her family often moved around Chattanooga. A change of neighborhoods - even just 10 minutes away from her old home - made a big difference.

Her move in eighth grade from Tyner Middle School to East Lake Academy of Fine Arts was particularly tough. She had formed bonds with friends over several years, practically a lifetime. Now new students walked the halls with her, carrying their own rhythms and inside jokes. Breaking through is tough, even for adults.

"I dreaded it," she said. "When I moved to East Lake, everybody had known each other their whole life. I was the newbie in the group. They knew I was smart. They put me in [advanced] groups. But I was always the oddball."

That changed, not from any particular moment but from steady growth. Howard School is the first place she's attended from start to completion. In addition to natural friendships formed over time, Mack plugged in practically everywhere she could.

She played forward on the soccer team and served as secretary for the Student Government Association. She also participated in youth court, Key Club, the UTC Business Empowerment Program, outdoor leadership, the Chick-fil-A Leadership Academy and the National Honor Society. She interned with the Lookout Mountain Conservancy for three years.

"I kept getting pushed to talk more, to be a leader," she said. "I had to assert myself. I had to become a leader. I understood: 'It's not so scary.'"

This fall, Mack will attend Berea College in central Kentucky. She isn't sure what she will study but is leaning toward a pre-med track. She wants to be an anesthesiologist.

Mack said she was accepted into 24 colleges, but Berea offered a four-year scholarship. The school's small size - about 1,600 undergraduates - also appealed to her.

"I wanted a personal experience," she said, "where people thought about me, where I wasn't just a number in the crowd."

Contact Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.