The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nighttime is the right time for this educator to help wayward students thrive

Between classes, Nelson Horine, principal of Anne Arundel County Evening High School, chats with Owen Alexander, 16, left, and Joe Barnes, 19. (Cheryl Diaz Meyer/For The Washington Post)

When school lets out for the day, it’s another beginning for Nelson Horine.

His students take geometry when other people are eating dinner. They learn Spanish or history as the sun goes down. The classes are small, and the stakes are high. Most struggled in typical high schools and need a second chance or a different way to learn.

At Anne Arundel Evening High School, many of them stick it out, leaving with a diploma.

“What we see is kids who weren’t successful in the day school thrive in the evening school,” said Horine, who was named The Washington Post’s Principal of the Year.

Horine, 71, has made evening school the heart of his life’s work, a constant through much of a 50-year career in his Maryland school system.

He has no plans to step away soon.

“It’s just so fulfilling,” he said on a recent night, dressed in three-piece suit and tie, as he mingled with students during a break at Severna Park High School, one of six sites for evening classes.

Horine started as a science teacher, then became the chairman of the science department, in Anne Arundel County Public Schools. He added on work as an evening-school administrator in the 1980s and became principal of the county program in 2004.

Since then, the alternative-education program has expanded from three high school campuses to six in the county that includes Annapolis. It has gone digital, too, offering some classes online.

For him, the mission could not be more important.

He talks at length about his students. Some have failed classes and are making them up as they continue at their regular high school. Others transfer and take all of their classes in the evenings — because they have day jobs, or fell in with the wrong crowd at a previous high school, or got into trouble, or face other struggles.

They have found a way forward in a school day that starts after 3 p.m. and ends after 9 p.m. At evening high school, teachers are close at hand. Hallways are quiet. Some classes have six students, some have 10, but never more than 15. School is four 90-minute classes per night.

Enrollment fluctuates, with about 600 students per semester taking classes on one basis or another. Evening school opened in 1967.

“Coming here and knowing they were going to work with me, I didn’t mind going in the evenings,” said Joseph Barnes Jr., 19, who expects to get a diploma soon and told Horine one recent night that he has been selected as a graduation speaker.

Horine beams.

The 71-year-old typically starts his mornings in the school system’s central offices with meetings and administrative tasks. By the afternoon, he is out at evening campuses — conferring with other educators, fielding parents’ calls, working with counselors. He gets to a couple of campuses a night.

He also is in charge of summer school and a “twilight school” program created to help ninth-graders retake courses they have failed.

“Every day is different because there are new problems to solve,” he said.

The goal for evening-school students, who usually are behind on credits, is to graduate at some point; they can stay on through the school year when they turn 21. Most graduate belatedly if they don’t age out first, Horine said.

“It’s really ultimately about dropout prevention,” he said.

Colleagues say Horine has helped create a sense of belonging for students who are some of the school system’s most vulnerable. They learn the same curriculum and take the same tests as their daytime counterparts, but in the evening, the attention is more personalized and relationships are easier to forge. Parents are expected to collaborate.

Fellow educators say Horine’s style is effective — that he handles students with kindness, firmness and fairness.

A father of three grown sons, Horine grew up in Erie, Pa. He said he has never sought posts higher than principal. He earned a master’s degree from Loyola University Maryland and did coursework toward a PhD.

“I wanted to have a pretty direct connection with students and the success of students,” he said. “That’s what was important to me as a school administrator. These are kids who really need support, and it’s my passion.”

As the leader of the evening school, he oversees about 130 teachers and administrators, all of whom have day jobs in the school system. Last week, they threw him a surprise celebration to honor his 50-year anniversary with Anne Arundel schools.

Some might retire after reaching that milestone. But Horine, a devoted kayaker, is not done yet. “I’m having a good time,” he said.

Horine is credited as a mentor for aspiring administrators and an instructional coach for teachers.

“Among his successes are two deputy superintendents, several sitting principals and effective teachers too numerous to count,” Sarah McDonald-Egan, an assistant superintendent, wrote in a letter of recommendation.

He also has received praised for his efforts to learn more about what works for students.

A few years ago, he spoke at a conference in Louisville on high school dropout prevention and visited a distance-learning program there. He brought the concept back to Maryland and within weeks launched an online initiative for his students, with real-time lessons from county teachers.

The walls in his satellite office at Severna Park High School are mostly decorated with framed photos of Anne Arundel Evening High School graduations. When students come in to see him, he said he likes to tell them, “That’s going to be you.”

He has worked to amp up the excitement of commencements, he and others say. Each graduate gets photos taken and mailed home. The school throws a reception afterward.

Last year, he congratulated 98 students as they crossed the stage. The large auditorium was filled to standing room only.

There were tears.

“Everyone is moved by what these students have done, what they have achieved to graduate high school,” he said.

This year, Horine thinks he may send off 117 students. “It could be the largest graduating class yet,” he said.

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