The class of 2017 will graduate from area high schools in June. Caps and gowns will fill bleachers and auditoriums, as proud parents take pictures. One man, Pat Henry, is sure to be sitting in the audience.
He’s worked tirelessly with some of these kids, sometimes for years, to get them up on that stage.
In 44 years of working in education, there haven’t been but five kids Henry truly did not like, and he claims he tried his “damndest” to find something good in those five. He retired a decade ago, after working as a principal and assistant principal at different schools in the valley. “Retired” is a relative term, as he’s currently working two jobs. In one, he expels kids from school. He’s the Expulsions Hearings Officer for the Roaring Fork School District, which is not an authority he likes to exercise.
“No kid is better off outside of school. Sometimes a school is better off without a kid, but there’s almost always something that can be done,” he said.
His second job is to keep kids in school. He’s currently mentoring 70 students throughout the district. If they’ve dropped out, he wants to get them back. Before each school year, he gets rosters of kids who have been identified as at-risk, the majority of which are male and Latino.
Arturo, 18, is one of these students. He should have graduated last year, but was held back in the eighth grade, so he had to repeat it. At the beginning of high school, Arturo would see Henry in the hallways, talking to students. When he was a sophomore, Henry subbed in one of his classes and Arturo finally asked him what he was doing when he showed up every so often to meet with students. Henry told him.
“I would like that, I would like that,” Arturo thought to himself. He’d torn his ACL, couldn’t play football and was struggling in school. When Arturo needed help in math, he and Henry sat together for hours going over the material. If it wasn’t for Henry, Arturo doesn’t think he’d be on track to graduate this June.
Henry has short meetings with his kids where they set small, achievable goals. They do this over and over again. He teaches them to advocate for themselves and to slow down and think critically about their situations. He might say to a student, “When I talked with your teachers…” or, “I got your report from your teachers, I noticed that Mrs. Jones thinks that you’re a royal pain in the butt, and Mr. Smith thinks you’re awesome. Tell me what the difference is, tell me what you’re doing different.”
Rob Stein is the superintendent of Roaring Fork Schools. The district’s expulsion rate is way down since hiring Henry. The dropout rate has climbed slightly, but the graduation rate has, too.
“Pat is like our Patron Saint of Strays, and he helps them get back with the herd,” Stein said.
If any of Henry’s 70 kids aren’t coming to school, he calls them. He calls their parents. He leaves notes on the door. He’ll even show up to where they work. It’s not as if his job is without heartbreak, or disappointment; plenty of his phone calls go unanswered and bright kids with potential don’t heed his advice.
But the majority of his kids end up graduating. This year, he’s hoping to have nine graduates. One of them, Anexy, couldn’t wait to tell him she was accepted into two colleges.
“I’m excited to see what he’s going to be like, his face, his reaction,” she said.
Henry admits his work is not all about the kids. Part of it’s selfish, he said. It’s part of where his self-worth comes from. But when he sees his kids up on the stage, it always brings tears to his eyes.
“Because they’ve come so far. These were kids that, in some cases, are castaways, and they’re out there graduating, just like everyone else,” he said.
In June, Henry will watch his kids graduate, and he’ll sit in the audience, clapping and cheering, along with everybody else.