Stereotypes and numbers never tell the whole story. Take Hillsboro High School in Nashville. It sits in Green Hills, an upscale area of the city, where 92 percent of the residents are white, and where half the families make more than $100,000 a year. But the school zone also includes students from the mostly Black Edgehill neighborhood six miles away, where half the residents make less than $25,000 a year. So despite Hillsboro’s beautifully renovated building in a tony neighborhood, it’s a Title 1 school where nearly six out of 10 students are Black or Hispanic, and where pre-pandemic test scores were well below the state average.

So how does a high school with such poor scores manage to graduate 92 percent of its students on time and send many of them to college, where they return for a second year at a higher rate than their Tennessee peers? Why do Hillsboro students leave high school apparently ready and eager for the next stage of their lives, whether career or college, when so many schools with similar demographics struggle?

Pathways make the difference

Hillsboro officials attribute their students’ success to its academies, which allow teens to pick one of the school’s prescribed pathways for life after graduation: Global Health & Science, International Business & Communications, and International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP). Every academy is like a mini school. Each has its own principal, dean of students, school counselor, and team teachers. Freshman Academy, the first stop for all students, is where teens explore their options before committing to one academy. The year includes both a college visit and a “job fair” where professionals and company representatives from the area share what their workdays and organizations are like. In Freshman Academy, students also sign a “contract” promising to finish school — a commitment designed to keep them focused on not only graduating but on achieving their larger life goals. After completing Freshman Academy, students get to choose one of the three academies and a pathway within it. Hillsboro educators say that because students get to opt into a pathway, they’re far more engaged in learning than if they had no choice.

The pathways within the academies vary — and some are more narrowly defined than others. For instance, the vast majority of the International Baccalaureate students are college-bound. So are those in the Interdisciplinary Science and Research pathway within the Global Health and Science Academy, which partners with Vanderbilt University. But those in Therapeutic Clinical Services or Sports and Human Performance pathways in the same academy have a broader range of options. In these programs, some students aim for college, while others focus on getting certifications or technical licenses that can land them jobs soon after high school. Some plan for both college and non-college-bound futures.

The school also attributes its success to the way it engages the resources of the larger community. It takes pains to help students find work-based opportunities in the community that will prepare them for their next step after high school, whatever that step is. “I wish I’d had these opportunities,” Business Academy Principal Riley Walker says. “High schools back in the day didn’t provide that connection between classwork and real-life opportunities.”

The school is also very intentional about how it engages families. For instance, Hillsboro holds events in different areas of town, including both Edgehill and Green Hills. “We plan everything with every social background in mind — from the time we do it, to what’s being presented,” says Walker. “Parents leave from whatever event we are having with a sense that ‘I belong here just as much as any parent from another community.’ And they believe their kids belong, too.”

Building professional skills

Many high schools that have a mission to help students from marginalized and lower-income families often urge students to focus on higher-paying STEM careers. The problem, however, is that high school students with mediocre grades and test scores in STEM subjects can end up thinking that college or a rewarding career is out of reach. But well-crafted pathways, like those at Hillsboro, give such students the chance to discover and develop interests in fields in which they can excel.

“I’m not good at science or health,” says Ethan Soundra, who is in Hillsboro’s Audio-Visual (AV) Production pathway. “I thought I could do something more interesting to me. I could do literature. I could do films. That was my thinking. And now I can do a wide variety of production and post-production tasks.”

Another AV student saw the pathway as a way to work with computers. “Anything with computers, I will do it,” Izangely Ruiz says. “I’m working with computers and cameras, editing videos. It’s fun.” Her next step is East Texas State University, where she will immerse herself in computer science. But her AV knowledge could easily land her in a digital media career as well.

Izangely and Ethan work with three other students on a production team that produced school news broadcasts their senior year. They each developed their own niche — writing, staging, camera work, or editing — even while they learned the broader spectrum of production skills. Dawn Marek, AV production teacher, says their learning far exceeds technical video skills. They’ve learned the importance of teamwork and responsibility while developing great troubleshooting skills. “They’re grounded in professionalism,” she says. “They learn to be cool when working under pressure and to come up with solutions.”

Taking care of business

Of course, students with a knack for numbers do well in other Hillsboro pathways, too — notably in its Business Academy. Senior Davion Davis found his pathway working for the U.S. Community Credit Union, which has a branch in the high school. (USCCU is a partner with Hillsboro High.) During his senior year, he worked at an off-campus branch of the credit union, and was offered a job upon graduation. Thanks to his time at Hillsboro, he knows that a career in business and banking can be a lot bigger than cashing a customer’s check. He plans to get his associate’s degree in finance and will be the manager at the USCCU high school branch.

Other students, like senior Kennedy Powell, came to Hillsboro knowing the Business Academy best represented her goals.

“I’m a businesswoman,” she says. She’s off to a strong start, having started two businesses while in high school. She’s got an instinct for what people are interested in; right now, that’s clothes. And she’s got the hustle to bring it to them. She built her website, created some designs to start with, sourced her product, and started making sales — and money. Meanwhile, she is also making the connection between her academic classes and business. Kennedy said her IB psychology class was eye-opening. It made some aspects of marketing click — that’s why people respond the way they do. The business academy has encouraged her hands-on efforts, and Kennedy will intern with one of Hillsboro’s business partners this school year to sharpen her marketing skills.

When high school doesn’t work for teenagers, four years can be a long time. College and career talk can fall flat when students don’t see a future for themselves. At Hillsboro, the administration strives to help students build a vision for themselves and own their four years. Counselors and teachers ask “What do you like?” “What do you want?” “How can we help?” Sometimes a student’s background or personal issues are the biggest hurdles. But the culture at Hillsboro is to encourage every adult in the school to put in that bit of extra effort, to make one more call on behalf of their kids. And every student is asked to put forth the commitment and effort to make sure that by senior year they have a vision, a plan, and aren’t asking themselves “Is this over yet?”.

The Hillsboro High community seems to be succeeding with its students. As Academy Coach Melissa Wrenn says, “Some success is in the data. But some is in what you see.” And what you see at Hillsboro is teenagers ready for the future.