By Amanda Ridner
February 2010

P.A.C.E. (Progress, Achievement, Choice, Empowerment) High School is an innovative dropout recovery and prevention school located at 1601 California Ave. in Cincinnati, Ohio, in a wing of the former St. Agnes Church.  P.A.C.E. was designed for at-risk youths in need of a safe place to fit in and work toward their own American Dream. 

P.A.C.E. is a continuous-progress school that “provides a ray of hope for young men and women that have been left behind,” says the school’s co-founder and executive director, Dr. Steven Hawley. Somewhere, somehow these kids were held back, but hung on. 

Five years ago P.A.C.E. High school was born; it soon gave life to the second chances necessary for these young people to succeed in life.  Many P.A.C.E. students have previously been incarcerated in juvenile or adult facilities.

Students are placed in continuing education programs where they work at their own pace.  The co-founders of P.A.C.E, Dr. Hawley and the late Michael Duke, had to design a system to work mindfully for 15- and 16-year-olds that were beginning at a fourth or fifth grade level.  These students come from 15 different schools in different districts because there is not a similar school in this region. Students are not required to live in Hamilton County. 

The young men and women at P.A.C.E. have to work a lot harder to graduate with the same amount of credits and courses as any normal high school student. The school offers a nationally recognized curriculum and uses the Scholastic READ 180 program.  The program increases literacy while incorporating the necessary material to accommodate those youths with special needs. 

The classes are accessible on computers and students work at their own pace and pick up where they left off in high school, or were cut off due to consequences of their negative life choices.  The students succeed according to the way they operate their own schedule and utilize their current academic abilities. Tthey must pass final exams at the end of each class term.  The computer tracks students’ progress and offers daily reminders of when the student will graduate depending upon their current work and progress rate. 

The faculty and staff at P.A.C.E. all choose to work at a place that some people wouldn’t want to walk past.  When you know that most of the student population is comprised of individuals who formerly committed a felon, it can be intimidating. 

Part of the greatness is that this alternative school offers the safety and comfort for the kids to feel accepted and know that there are people waiting for them to succeed, not fail. 

“Every employee that I have here is a mentor first, an advocate second, a counselor third, and finally, they do whatever their job title says,” explains Dr. Hawley. 

As a society, we can’t just disregard someone that has gotten into trouble because bad choices and trouble were all they knew.  The teachers are personally selected by Dr. Hawley, and he admits they aren’t easy to find.  “You have to be willing to respect where they are coming from, even though you don’t agree with how they act,” says Dr. Hawley.  It is “a very dedicated family” that Dr. Hawley oversees at P.A.C.E.    

At any given time, five percent of the students are homeless.  A large part of the population is nomadic because they never had a solid foundation on which to plant their feet.  P.A.C.E. High School is a place for the young men and women to plant their feet and grow.  At least 70 percent of the student population is involved in the criminal system and awaiting adjudication.

Forty percent of the students have kids of their own.  P.A.C.E. does not offer childcare, but offers guidance and assistance to help parents find it.  All the students at P.A.C.E. are tackling real-life adult issues.  Seventy-percent of the students grew up without an active positive male role model, which is something vital to the development of kids into adults.  Dr. Hawley chooses to focuses on the most important statistic: 100 percent of the youths are good students.

One of the most important things that every student at this school has is a caring environment. Ninety percent of the students at P.A.C.E. have been diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder(A.D.H.D.).
“The kids are not stupid. Disadvantaged yes, but stupid, no,” says Dr. Hawley.

Dr. Hawley is very good at what he does.  He has an open-door policy and goes above and beyond to help anyone that he sees needs it. The students know that they are always going to get praise from “Doc,” as they call him.
When the students at P.A.C.E. go to see Dr. Steven Hawley, they refer to it as “Doc Talk.” 

I had the privilege to sit down with Dr. Hawley and talk to him about his work.  He is professional, passionate, and motivating. It would be difficult to fail in his presence.  That is probably why most students always come back to finish. 

Two students turned in their final work while I was there with ‘Doc.’ All of the students must complete their Life Project program to graduate.  It is a part of their English 12 class curriculum. This Project requires the individual to make plans, back-up plans, and set realistic goals. The main objective of the Life Project is for the students to fit all the necessary pieces together and then make it work.  The students must face themselves and their fears in order to keep moving forward after P.A.C.E. 

Like most high schools, P.A.C.E. intends for their students to succeed after they leave.  Once school is finished, though, the pressures of old habits and unhealed wounds can make it hard for anyone to succeed. 

The Life Project exists for the students to guide their future decisions. The students are supposed to be prepared with the skill and intent to act on their plans and goals. Dr. Hawley sits down with any student that comes to the door and will listen for as long as it takes.  He explains that they must be realistic about what comes next and who they are. 

“If you fail you can get yourself up and do it again,” he says. 
One young man had four activities to finish for almost two years and just came back to finish. Why did he come back? “He got over his attitude. You are not going to succeed in life with all of that attitude,” says Dr. Hawley. “The whole idea is we want you in school,” he says. 

P.A.C.E. is one of the safest schools in the county according to Dr. Hawley, in spite of the fact that it works with some of the “hardest” youths. Dr. Hawley asks every single one of them if they really care, and they respond that, yes, they do care.

P.A.C.E. High School is changing lives for the better.  It is the answer for so many youths that thought they didn’t deserve better. Dr. Hawley came along to find greatness, not failure, in individuals that do not get the same opportunities that many of us take for granted. There are hundreds of students at P.A.C.E. finally getting the support and courage to be self-empowered and lead a better life. It takes constant support and a clear, realistic vision to guide the young men and women taking their chances to succeed.  P.A.C.E. offers all of those things. 

Read part 2 now.

Dr. Steven Hawley

Dr. Steven Hawley


Michael Duke

MIchael Duke always believed a person was worth saving. He co-founded and was Dean of Students at P.A.C.E. High School.


Amanda RidnerAmanda Ridner