At-risk alternative: Every child is a success waiting to happen
By Stacey Adamczyk
It’s a story heard far too often, students feel as though they do not belong, they get lost in a larger high school environment for one reason or another, and drop out. But what if these students were ‘found’ instead lost to the system? Wisconsin’s Connects Learning Center (CLC) was designed not only to ‘find’ these students, but also to help them flourish, to ensure they become the success they are all destined to be.
Our school is a one of a kind educational opportunity for students in grades 9-12 that provides an alternative setting, computer-based curriculum, service learning, as well as life experience opportunities for students identified as at-risk due to the system. We have consistently seen a 90+ percent graduation rate, a number we are proud of and attribute to our approach to learning.
Designed to support four WI school districts, CLC has created a unique collaboration model that empowers students who are at-risk due to the system to find his/her niche in the community while simultaneously working towards earning a diploma. The reasons students attend CLC are as diverse as the students themselves—to accelerate graduation, to address different learning styles, to provide the sense of community, the need to an individualized learning plan, and more.
We have adopted the Circle of Courage® Philosophy to create a caring, supportive environment where students can develop and complete a course of study relevant to them, at their own pace. Our staff has worked tirelessly since our founding in 2001 to ensure we create learning spaces conducive to student-centered and blended learning in combination with direct teacher instruction and small group activities.
Four Districts, One Common Goal
Admittedly, we do things a little differently at CLC, we do not have guidance counselors, principals, or administrators; two teachers and two aids are 100% focused on supporting the 72 students currently enrolled for the upcoming school year. Our four partner districts; Franklin, Cudahy, South Milwaukee and Oak Creek-Franklin Jt. School District provide assistance through guidance counselors, school psychologists, and support staff while we focus on educating our students holistically.
A committee including members from respective districts, and Connects Learning Center’s lead teachers run the school has established a referral process designed to identify CLC candidates and begin the application process. Students who are behind their peers academically, those with truancy concerns, or those unable to adjust to a traditional school setting are referred into CLC.
We strongly believe in positive reinforcement and recognition. At-risk students, many of which are classified as such due to cracks in the system rather than any learning or behavioral issues, have a difficult time developing a sense of security where they are. We plant many little seeds to help them grow academically and socio-emotionally as a productive member of society. When a student completes a course, we celebrate with the ring of a bell loud enough for everyone in the school to hear, when a student continuously goes “above and beyond” we recognize the accomplishment with a citizenship award, and when a student completes all of their coursework with us, we celebrate by throwing confetti. We have found that celebrating the little things makes a big impact.
The Not so Typical Learning Space
Creating a positive school culture has been an integral element to our students’ success, as has creating the right learning spaces for these students to thrive in. We feel that CLC is a “home away from home” for our learners. Much like college; our learning spaces are filled with comfy couches, chairs, and lounge furniture for student use, as well as areas conducive to collaboration. To further empower or students, we have adopted cloud-based curriculum from Odysseyware, allowing our students to find their ideal spot for learning, while learning at their own pace.
In addition to individual learning spaces, we have spaces dedicated to larger group activities, designed to foster student belonging, support collaboration towards mastery, encourage generosity and create a sense of community. We have found this to be an integral part of our success in reaching these kids; the feeling that they are not alone, that they belong and that they are a success just waiting to happen.
We operate two three-hour sessions per day with 80 percent of student time being spent working individually online. Our curriculum is aligned with Wisconsin’s Model Academic Standards. Thanks to the flexibility of Odysseyware, our teachers are able to create and customize online courses and content based on students’ individual needs. Furthermore, courses focus on applied knowledge, creative problem solving and decision-making.
Additionally, we give students the power to choose their method of credit attainment, including packet-based, computer-based, experiential, or a combination of the three. They are encouraged to set goals for attendance, credit attainment, and graduation date with responsibility of monitoring goals and making adjustments shared by students, parents and staff.
With hard work and motivation students can graduate as early as their junior year. We set our expectations high knowing that students will rise to the occasion. Each student must meet their respective districts’ high school graduate requirements. Additionally, we require students to achieve a minimum requirement of 80% proficiency to show mastery in each subject area, well above the requirement set in traditional high schools. While in the program’s infancy the goal was to ensure students attained a high school diploma, the focus has evolved from merely earning a diploma to also mapping out the future. Students participate in visits from and field trips to 4-year colleges, technical colleges, and apprenticeship programs so that they leave CLC with a post-secondary plan in additio to their high school diploma.
Experiential learning is another key component to our approach; we have numerous community partners that provide exciting and fun ways for our students to learn, collaborate and work together to achieve a common goal. We begin the school year with a trip to Camp Minikani—where students are tasked with working together to reach a challenging, common goal. Throughout the year we visit places like Discovery World, the Milwaukee Public Museum, the Civil War Museum and more. Additionally our students participate in volunteer, in-service learning opportunities for organizations like Mittens for Kids and Pennies for Patients, further instilling a sense of community in our students. We feel that volunteering and giving back is a life lesson that curriculum just can’t teach, it has to be experienced.
We feel that through the combination of the right approach to learning, addressing students holistically and using space to create a positive learning environment our students can realize their potential while achieving academic mastery. A sense of mastery improves self-efficacy, which in turn improves motivation and achievement. When students feel successful in academics, other parts of their lives fall into place as well, allowing each of our students to realize their full potential and become the success they are destined to be.
For more information about Connects Learning Center or practical strategies for utilizing the “Circle of Courage®” philosophy, please contact: Stacey Adamczyk, MA, via email at [email protected] Stacey has been educating youth at risk in South Eastern Wisconsin since 2001 where she is the lead teacher of Connects Learning Center—a four-district consortium alternative high school.