Leighton Turner loved every part of his job as Franklin Community High School’s assistant principal except one: periodically he had to try to talk a student out of quitting.
The conversations usually didn’t go well. The students would tell Turner about their future plans, which might involve making a living as a roofer earning $10 an hour. Turner would try to explain that they wouldn’t be able to support themselves or a family on that wage. The words rarely sank in.
Then, a few years ago, Turner got the chance to help some of those students and others after they realized he was right.
Turner has spent more than 40 years at Franklin Community High School, including more than 30 years as assistant principal and principal. Three years ago he was asked to direct Finish Strong, a program allowing students throughout Johnson County who quit high school to earn their diplomas online.
Where he worked: Franklin Community High School
How long: More than 40 years
Jobs: Director of guidance, assistant principal, principal
Most recent position: Director of the Finish Strong program
Wife/Finish Strong co-worker: Sheila Turner
What is Finish Strong: An online program where students who had left high school could return to earn their high school diploma
Number of students Turner enrolled in the program: About 350
Number of students who earned their high school diplomas through the program: More than 150
Turner saw the new position as another chance to help students who had dropped out months, years or decades earlier see they could still earn their diploma.
“This gave us an opportunity to bring those people a sense of fruition, to a sense of achievement, to take pride in what they accomplished,” Turner said.
About 350 students were enrolled in the program in March, up from about 25 when Finish Strong began, and more than 150 have earned their diplomas. Finish Strong has become the largest alternative high school program in Johnson County, and has grown so large that next year more staff is being added and the number of students enrolled is being capped, though students currently working on their diplomas will be able to finish, high school principal Doug Harter said.
The new teachers will take over for Turner, who is retiring this summer.
“Leighton is just a wonderful man. He is a true educator in every sense of the way. He will be dearly missed. He has made such an impact on this community all the years that he’s worked here,” Harter said.
Turner started at Franklin Community High School as a guidance counselor before becoming an assistant principal, which was the job he enjoyed the most. As a guidance counselor students typically looked to Turner to fix problems for them, but the students Turner worked with as assistant principal were usually more motivated to work with him to find solutions.
Turner could have retired years ago but stayed and continued working with Finish Strong because he enjoyed the teachers and students.
“I thoroughly love work. I thoroughly loved working with folks in the realm I was working with them,” he said.
Finish Strong also gave Turner another chance to reach back out to students who had left high school years ago.
“They were making such a horrible mistake. They were making a decision that would be so impactful on the rest of their lives,” he said.
Part of the reason so many students have joined Finish Strong is Turner’s marketing. During his first year he went to open houses at all of the schools to sell the program. Anyone who didn’t already have their high school diploma knew by the time they left that Turner could help them.
Turner also had the high school start streaming the question “Need a high school diploma?” on its digital sign along U.S. 31.
“That gets everybody’s attention,” Turner said.
Some students were able to guide themselves through the program and only needed to meet with Turner so he could supervise them while they took their exams at the end of each course. Others needed help mastering the online math, English, social studies and science lessons, and it was often up to either Turner or his wife, Sheila, to help.
And because students can work on online assignments anywhere at any time both Turners had to be reachable days, nights and weekends.
“We never leave the house without our iPad,” Turner said.
As more students enrolled in the program it became difficult for the Turners to provide individual help to all of the students who needed it.
Last school year Leighton Turner spent most of his time registering students for the program while Sheila Turner, a retired English teacher from Edinburgh schools, worked with students who needed help with their assignments.
But with hundreds of students enrolled they didn’t have enough time to follow up with students who weren’t logging online to complete their lessons. And it bothered Turner when students who enrolled in Finish Strong failed again to earn their diplomas.
“I still would like to figure out why didn’t we reach them,” he said.
Harter knows that the program had more students than the Turners could follow, and is adding more teachers to oversee the program and will cap the number of students at 180.
That way teachers can follow up with students who have gone longer than a week without completing an online assignment, Harter said.
Turner has mixed feelings about retiring. A part of him wants to continue helping students earn their diplomas. He and Sheila haven’t decided how they’re going to spend they’re time, but are excited to no longer be on-call.
“This is a bittersweet move. But we were hoping that it gives us more discretionary time,” he said.