Professional boxer Roger Hilley, 22, graduated from Hamilton County High School at age 19. Earlier, Hilley was kicked out of two other schools.

Photo Gallery

Another chance at success: Adult high school giving local students last shot

It was a gold Honda Civic that got Roger Hilley back and forth to adult high school at the northern tip of Hamilton County.

Hilley was 18, he had already been kicked out of two schools, and this was his last shot at earning a diploma.

Without a driver's license or a car, Hilley said, he wouldn't have been able to attend the adult high school — more than 40 minutes from his home near downtown Chattanooga.

"I never thought I would get to graduate," Hilley said, assuming he'd die young or end up in prison.

Now 22, Hilley keeps his diploma in a leather suitcase, a place of safekeeping and pride.

The adult high school, known as Hamilton County High School, is past Harrison Bay, just off Highway 58 — nowhere near a bus line. Many students rely on rides from family and friends, and many students across the county aren't able to attend because of the location.

Soon after Hilley walked across the stage grasping his diploma in 2013, another high school dropout, Luis Landgrave, used the same gold Honda Civic to get to the school.

Landgrave, like Hilley, grew up in poverty and didn't think he'd be a high school graduate.

"I thought I'd still be living on the streets," he said. "Not making money and making wrong choices."

But the car helped Landgrave make it to school and earn a diploma.

Now, the 22-year-old is in the Army, stationed in Texas. Hilley is a personal trainer in Chattanooga and a professional boxer. Both say they wouldn't be where they are today if it wasn't for Joe Smith and the gold car.


Smith, who was recently named to the Hamilton County Board of Education, worries about the kids who don't have a way to get to the adult high school. Many dropouts realize a few months — or years — later that they made a mistake, he said, but they don't have a way to correct it.

"As a young man, I made a lot of mistakes in my life, and there were folks that were there to give me another chance, and sometimes a third chance and even a fourth chance," Smith said.

A lot of the county's dropouts deserve another chance, Smith believes. And he is working with business leaders to start another adult high school campus downtown, one that's on a bus line.

Smith acknowledged the Hamilton County Department of Education might not have additional resources to fund another adult high school, so he's looking for outside help, arguing the community can make no better investment than in this school.

Smith is rallying support from fellow board members and school district leaders, with the hopes of opening a new location in the fall. There are ideas about creating pipelines for students to earn post-secondary credentials or degrees after graduating from the high school and preparing students to enter the workforce.


Gary Kuehn, principal of Hamilton County High School, said most of his students struggled at their previous schools, but are motivated here to be successful because they know it's their last shot.

The school serves students ages 17 to 21, and they are given more autonomy than in a traditional school setting and usually are treated like adults, Kuehn said.

Walking the halls, the school is calm, students quietly chat near the vending machines and everyone knows each other's names.

The school's teachers are invested in the work. Kuehn hasn't had to hire a teacher in three years. He said everyone is focused on supporting the students and ensuring they graduate.

The adult high school has seen success, and last year, 89 percent of the students who enrolled earned diplomas, which is higher than the county's graduation rate of 83.8 percent. Since 2012, more than 130 students have graduated from the school each year.

Kuehn has pushed for starting additional locations several times during the 10 years he's been principal at the school, but each time it hasn't worked out.

In 2007, Hamilton County Schools leaders said they wanted to create two new locations, one in the Hixson area and another one downtown. In 2008, a location was set to open downtown at 1200 Grove St. with an estimated annual operating cost of about $700,000. The school board ultimately abandoned the idea in 2009, deciding it was too expensive.

Many of the students enrolled at Hamilton County High School are from high schools in that portion of the county — Central, East Hamilton, Ooltewah, Tyner and Brainerd.

"It's harder for other kids to get here," Kuehn said. "I think we'd serve more kids if we started another location."

Jonathan Ivey, 17, travels from the Red Bank area to attend Hamilton County High School.

Last year, Ivey said, he was kicked out of Red Bank High School because he kept skipping class and misbehaving — people told him he'd never graduate.

"Now I have perfect attendance," he said. "And better grades."

Ivey said he needed a second chance, and now he's motivated to earn a high school diploma so he can enroll in the TCAT welding program at Chattanooga State Community College. At Red Bank, he said, it was easy for him to slip through the cracks. But here he knows he has to show up to school, and teachers are constantly checking to make sure he's on track.

Rachel Turner has been teaching social studies at Hamilton County High School for four years, and said she and her fellow teachers work diligently to build confidence and self-esteem in the students because many doubt they'll ever do well in school.

"But the kids want that diploma," Turner said. "And they want to do well."

Turner said she can relate to many of her students because she needed someone to push her to stay on track during high school. She realizes she may be the only person in some of her students' lives checking on their progress, and she feels a responsibility to help them reach graduation.

For Caitlyn Justus, 18, starting at the adult high school in January was a tough transition, as she hadn't been to school since her mom pulled her out when she was 15. Justus eventually moved out of her mom's house.

After work one day, she stopped by Hamilton County High School and asked to be enrolled, as she was too old to attend the county's other high schools.

"That is one of the best things I've done for myself since becoming an adult," she said. "Now I'm going to have a strong foundation for my future."

Justus plans to be a teacher or a veterinarian after she graduates in December.

"A lot of students like me had their education taken away from them," she said. "All of us deserve the opportunity to get it back."

Hilley said it was fitting that the Honda Civic that got him to school was gold.

"I've won all kinds of boxing championships," he said. "But getting my diploma was the real championship."

Hilley plans to help Smith fight to start a location of the school downtown. He said having it located near some of the more troubled areas of the city will give kids no excuse but to enroll.

"If we had it right here, I think thousands of lives could be saved by the impact of getting an education," he said. "Mine was."

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at or 423-757-6592. Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.