Thursday, August 30, 2012
Laramie Boomerang
By EVE NEWMAN




Encouragement where it is most needed Whiting principal recognized for work with at-risk youth

Whiting High School principal Ursula Harrison was recognized for her work with at-risk youth as the 2012 recipient of the Craig and Susan Thomas Foundation Leadership Award.

The statewide award, presented to Harrison at the Wyoming State Fair in Douglas earlier this month, recognizes adults who work to support the needs of Wyoming’s young people.

Harrison has been at Whiting for 17 years and in education for more than 35, working in England, Spain and the United States. Her efforts to support students who need extra attention date back to her college years, when she taught English to Indian students, and then volunteered to teach English to their mothers as well.

“I work with kids who need that little bit of extra help. That’s something I’ve always believed in,” she said. “Sometimes, instead of a straight road to get to college, for some kids it’s a winding road, and it meanders. Some kids just need some help and guidance.”

She said an “at-risk” student isn’t always defined by socio-economic status.

“I look for a student who is not the norm, who is struggling, whether it be family matters, academic matters or just personal matters of their own. I also look to see how I can best bring out the potential in them,” she said.

In the high school setting, that means figuring out what each student needs in order to take the next step in life, whether it’s entering the workforce or continuing on to higher education.

Because some Whiting students don’t have grade point averages high enough to qualify for the Hathaway scholarship, Harrison established a scholarship fund at Laramie County Community College. She even used part of her $2,500 in prize money from the Thomas Foundation to fund it.

The balance of the money will fund extra-curricular and cultural programs at the school.

“A student who has potential needs to be encouraged, so that’s what I’ve done,” she said.

At Whiting, Harrison established a nursery for students with children and started several vocational programs aimed at giving students skills to transition into the workforce. Students at Whiting have the option of becoming certified nurses aides, learning basic emergency care or earning food safety certification in the culinary program.

“The students that we tend to have stay here in Laramie, they don’t tend to leave,” she said. “Our students go to community college or they go out and need a job. We need to make sure they’re skilled.”

Charlotte Abelson, who nominated Harrison for the award, praised Harrison’s support of the basic needs of Whiting students. She said the student body has a poverty rate of 70 percent.

“It is typical of Mrs. Harrison to arrange for food and housing for her students, to personally buy coats and shoes for her students, and to enlist community members to find jobs for her students,” Abelson wrote in her nomination letter.

Abelson also praised Harrison’s support of Whiting’s teachers.

“I think she’s nominated every single teacher in the school for a teaching award. She just works tirelessly to support the faculty,” Abelson said in an interview.

Students who want to attend Whiting are interviewed before they are accepted.

Harrison said they have to desire to make progress in their academic careers.

“Many of our students have had a rough time as they’ve gone through schooling, and they have a negative attitude,” she said.

Twenty-four students graduated during the course of the past school year, including 12 in May. Harrison said this year’s student body is close to 50, though as many as 70 students may pass through during the year.

Susan Thomas, director of the Craig and Susan Thomas Foundation, said Harrison provides opportunities to those who need it most.

“It is an honor to give this award to someone who nurtures and understands learners who are at risk, while at the same time teaching them personal responsibility,” she said in a press release.

For more information about the foundation, go to www.thomas-foundation.com.

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