DANVILLE — It's 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, and usually Katasha Butler would be at the Veterans Affairs Illiana Healthcare System supervising the in-patient pharmacy staff.
But on this morning, Butler, wearing her white pharmacy coat, is sitting at a table in the Danville High School gymnasium, where she took physical education and cheered on the basketball team, meeting one-on-one with freshmen and junior students.
Butler reviews an academic progress report for one those students, junior Alexis Simmons. Simmons — whose classes include Advanced Placement English, pre-calculus and Spanish — had perfect attendance and made straight A's.
After congratulating Simmons on her high marks and hard work, Butler asks about her aspirations after high school.
"I know I want to graduate from a four-year university, but I'm kind of indecisive on a career," admits Simmons, who has many interests and is still exploring others. "I'm interested in the law. But my passion is with music and performing. I like to be a leader. And I like to help people."
Butler, who sees a lot of her younger self in Simmons, shares that after deciding to become a pharmacist, she job-shadowed one. She encouraged the teen to do the same.
"It really can help you decide 'Oh, that's not for me,' or 'I could really see myself doing that,'" Butler suggests.
Simmons' eyes light up when she learns that Butler is a graduate of Butler University in Indianapolis — one of her top school choices — and is currently taking MBA classes there. Butler fishes a business card from her pocketbook, hands it to Simmons and invites the teen to use her as a resource.
The interaction was part of Danville High's first Making the Grade Conference, just one of the components of the school's $6 million School Improvement Grant designed to significantly improve academic achievement and prepare students for success in college and the workforce. At the conference, aimed at increasing community involvement, community members were invited to the school to review progress reports of all ninth- and 11th-graders, encourage them in their academic endeavors, get them thinking about how their time at school correlates with their goals and dreams and show them they have a caring adult who they can turn to.
"You've all heard the saying, 'It takes a village to raise a child,' We're the village," Associate Superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat tells the 40 to 50 people who are volunteering at the morning session. More will come in the afternoon.
Volunteers include current and retired business people, professionals, social service providers, clergy and school administrators.
"Today, you will listen, inspire, encourage, and you will guide," Desmoulin-Kherat continues.
"Teenagers long for a personal connection," Principal Phil Cox adds. "They may not always say that, but they long to have an adult look into their eyes and say, 'I believe in you.'"
In the gym filled with 30 small tables, volunteer Jason West introduces himself to freshman Lexi Woods. When West sees that Woods has already missed three days of school and is struggling in some subjects including English and history, he tells her he can relate.
A recent Danville transplant, West reveals he wasn't the best student in high school. Like Woods, he didn't raise his hand in class or seek out the teacher after school when he didn't understand something, thinking he would figure it out himself.
"When I started to ask for help, that made all of the difference. I guarantee it will help you bring your grades up," says West, now a supervisor at Pepsico Quaker Oats, an Alabama Army National Guard member and a graduate student. He also encourages her to take advantage of the school's free after-school tutoring program that's held three days a week and provides transportation home.
Then Woods write down some goals for the year: Do my work and get my grades up.
"I know I can do it," she says, nodding her head.
Across the gym, Leslie Cunningham, a Danville High graduate, chats with junior Kristen Grimes, an A student. She commends the teen for her drive and commitment, knowing that an encouraging word can make a difference.
When Cunningham was in high school, she was lucky to have many who took an interest in her — her parents, Charles and Loretta Randle; retired Superintendent David Fields, then a teacher and director of the Laura Lee Fellowship House; and Madeline Cheek, who also worked at Laura Lee. They rooted for her and pushed her when needed.
"Those mentors planted seeds back then that are still bearing fruit," says Cunningham, who writes a monthly column for an online magazine called xtraordinaryyou.com.
"That's what happens when you drop a good seed in a child," continues Cunningham, who hopes to plant a number of seeds herself at the conference.