Connecting Children back to School, Family, and Community utilizing the Circle of Courage
Article, Winter 2012
Small, alternative high school adopts the Circle of Courage philosophy creating an environment that fosters belonging, encourages generosity, promotes independence, and supports mastery among students at risk.
Connects Learning Center (CLC), created by a very ambitious team of leaders who work cooperatively to ensure the success of the program, started in an Oak Creek, Wisconsin district office warehouse but grew to fill a building of its own. The passion and determination of the CLC staff allowed the school to expand into a powerhouse that helps raise the graduation rates of four school districts, teaches kids to give back to the community and value education, as well as prepares students for life after high school.
The CLC staff continuously develops relevant strategies for working with youth at risk inspired by the Circle of Courage philosophy described in Reclaiming Youth at Risk; Our Hope for the Future (Brendtro, Brokenleg & Van Bockern, 2002). We create/foster a school setting that strongly resembles a small community in which the student has the opportunity to develop a sense of belonging, generosity, mastery, and independence; traits necessary for developing a positive self-image as well as a positive school culture.
Connects Learning Center, a unique educational opportunity for students grades 9-12, provides an alternative setting, computer-based curriculum, a service learning component, and work experience opportunities for students identified as at risk. Connects Learning Center’s purpose is to provide an alternative educational experience for students who have not experienced success in a traditional setting. CLC addresses the academic, social, emotional, and vocational needs of these students. The school provides an alternative method of continued learning in an atmosphere that is sensitive and suited to the development of students’ intellectual, physical and social capabilities. The goal is to provide a caring, supportive environment where students can develop and complete a course of study that has relevance for them.
The program operates two three-hour sessions per day. Resident districts including Franklin, Cudahy, South Milwaukee and Oak Creek-Franklin Jt. School District(s) provide assistance through guidance counselor(s), school psychologist(s), and support staff. Committees from the respective districts consist of the Connects Learning Center’s lead teachers, guidance counselors, school psychologists, principal and/or associate principal, and Director of Pupil Services have established a referral process to identify candidates for the school. High school staff, parent(s) guardian(s) and community agencies refer students who are behind their peers academically, are habitually truant, or cannot adjust to the traditional school setting. Student interviews are a critical part of the referral process. The lead teachers and/or the Director of Pupil Services interview students. All students who are at-risk are eligible but must first meet with the guidance counselor.
Too often, students feel as though they do not belong, they get lost in the large high school environment. We strive to create a community where every student can find his/her niche. We start out our school year with a trip to Camp Minikani—a day camp that works on team building and personal mastery. Students work together to reach a common goal whether it is to reach the top of a rock climbing wall, walk 100 feet across a tight rope 50 feet in the air, or balance a platform holding 20 kids. The students build lasting relationships in just one afternoon.
Our development of belonging does not end when that fall day ends. We continue to foster current friendships and create new relationships with activities throughout the school year including a monthly school-community meal (prepared by the students), a monthly field trip to places like Discovery World, the Milwaukee Public Museum, Growing Power, etc., as well as monthly community service projects like Mittens for Kids and Pennies for Patients. We believe in the strong power of relationships and a true sense of belonging will encourage growth.
Generosity is a very important component of the Connects Learning Center philosophy. Students have multiple opportunities throughout the school year to engage in activities that encourage generosity. In previous school years, students took part in the Linus Project—a service learning opportunity that benefited the youth in the community. The students of CLC hand-made over 40 blankets and donated those blankets to Project Linus whose mission is “to provide love, a sense of security, warmth and comfort to children who are seriously ill, traumatized, or otherwise in need through the gifts of new, handmade blankets and afghans, lovingly created by volunteer ‘blanketeers.’” Additionally, the CLC students invited a group of students with special needs to help with their venture. The CLC students worked one-on-one teaching the younger students a new skill. The project earned the students a short spotlight on the Channel 12 News.
While the Linus Project was a semester-long project that taught the students a lot about generosity, the students engage in additional, small projects throughout the school year. Some of the different student-lead projects include; creating baskets for a local food pantry, working at the Hope House, bake sales to create field trip scholarships for students in need, Pennies for Patients, Mittens for Kids, among other various projects. We encourage students to engage in different service-learning projects quarterly. We believe that students benefit from giving to others and once they feel those benefits, they will continue to give throughout their lifetime.
Mastery is an essential component of the students’ education. A sense of mastery improves self-efficacy which in turn improves motivation and achievement. Students thrive when given multiple opportunities for varying levels of mastery. When students start to feel successful in academics, the other parts of their lives fall into place as well. The majority of instruction is delivered via computer with one-to-one assistance from the teaching staff. The curriculum is aligned with the State of Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction Model Academic Standards. In addition to the computer-based coursework, we believe experiential learning, which includes field trips, projects, and student-designed activities can improve mastery. Furthermore, the curriculum is based on applied knowledge, creative problem solving and decision-making. Connects Learning Center provides students with nontraditional approaches to meeting their high school graduation requirements.
We set our expectations high knowing that students will rise to the challenge and feel a sense of accomplishment when they do. Each student must meet respective districts’ high school graduate requirements. Additionally, students meet a minimum requirement of 80% proficiency to show mastery of each subject area, which is well above the requirement set in the traditional high school. We work closely with our students to ensure their success and mastery.
The final component of the “Circle of Courage” philosophy is independence. Students experience a balance of autonomy throughout their time at Connects Learning Center. Students participate in creating a class constitution which allows them the power to create an environment that is conducive to their learning. Students participate in weekly maintenance of the building and grounds, which provides the students with life skills as well as ownership for the building. Additionally, students choose their methods of credit attainment (i.e. packet-based, computer-based, experiential, or a combination of the three), and are encouraged to set goals for attendance (90% minimum), credit attainment, and graduation date. Both the student and the staff share the responsibility of monitoring goals and making adjustments when necessary.
The CLC staff strongly believes in positive reinforcement and recognition. Developing a student’s sense of security supports the growth of independence. We plant many little seeds. 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 maintains perfect attendance for a quarter, we celebrate with a small token of recognition; when a student continuously goes “above and beyond” we recognize with the citizenship award, and when a student completes all of their coursework with us, we celebrate by throwing confetti. There are many little things we do to make a big impact.
The CLC staff facilitates weekly large-group and daily small group activities that foster belonging, encourage generosity, promote independence, and support mastery. We present these activities utilizing an interactive format to educators at a district-, state-, and national level. Traditional education teachers, guidance counselors, and administrators have realized success utilizing these activities and have found these activities aid in building a positive classroom culture.
For more information about Connects Learning Center or practical strategies for utilizing the “Circle of Courage” philosophy, please contact:
Stacey Adamczyk, MA, 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. She can be contacted by email at
Brendtro, L., Brokenleg, M., & Van Brockern, S. (2002). Reclaiming youth at risk: Our hope for the future (Rev. ed.). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Cudahy - Bob Kazmierski once struggled in a traditional high school classroom setting where he couldn't get enough individualized attention, so he turned to Connects Learning Center, an alternative high school program in Cudahy.
Alternative schools often carry a stigma of catering to students lacking ambition, but Kazmierski said Connects serves students who simply learn differently. He graduated last year and has been working full-time at a fast-food restaurant to save money for Gateway Technical College, where he's registered to start classes in January.
"It's not like (Connects) classes are easier at all," Kazmierski said. "It's just in a different format."
The small school's emphasis on personalized help for students is a key part of that, but its operational structure may be its most innovative feature. Connects is a charter school run by multiple districts that work together to provide a cost-efficient alternative path for students.
Last year, Kazmierski and a few other students commuted to Connects from Franklin High School; others came from Cudahy, South Milwaukee and Oak Creek-Franklin school districts.
Three of those districts - Cudahy, South Milwaukee and Oak Creek-Franklin - share responsibility for running Connects and a fourth - Franklin - pays for student seats.
The districts say it's a successful example of offering services better by acting together than by going it alone.
Students say Connects helps them accelerate their path to graduation and improve their chances of success.
"You work at your own pace," Kazmierski explained. "You don't have to move with 30 other kids, and if you don't understand something you can still stay on that same topic and work with the teachers here."
The program, geared toward credit-deficient students, was created in 2001 as a charter school in collaboration among the three districts that run it. The districts combined efforts to apply for a charter school grant because of their geographic proximity and because each had only a small number of students suited for such a school.
"In each of our districts we probably don't have enough students to run a program," said Dennis Banach, director of student services in Cudahy.
"This way . . . we can afford this as another option for our kids," he said.
Before the joint initiative, the four school districts sent students needing additional help to alternative programs outside their districts, such as to programs offered by the local regional educational cooperative, which serves 45 area districts. Now, with a vested interest in Connects and an influence over its design, district administrators are more connected to the kids and families they're serving at the alternative school.
They're also able to save a significant amount of money each year. According to Banach, Cudahy pays $5,500 per seat at Connects, a cost that has remained static for the past several years. Under the regional cooperative, the district shelled out $5,800 per seat and an additional $280 per day for a bus to transport students.
For students to attend Kradwell School, a different alternative program in Wauwatosa, Cudahy used to pay $9,870 per seat, plus transportation.
Today, Cudahy is responsible for managing finances at Connects, South Milwaukee oversees technology support, and Oak Creek-Franklin handles staffing and maintenance of both the building and the grounds. South Milwaukee and Oak Creek-Franklin own the building that houses Connects.
The learning center is not intended to be a four-year program. It's a resource for older students who need help accelerating through courses to graduate, which still keeps them connected to their home district high school.
"It's not like these kids go off and you forget about them," Banach said.
Currently, 64 students attend Connects during the morning and afternoon - half in each session. While in class, they work on OdysseyWare online curriculum and in hard-copy packets, setting their own pace while the program's two teachers and two educational assistants monitor their progress. Most students devote the remainder of their school day to electives, such as courses on metals and autos in their district high school.
Over the course of a year, about 150 students will flow through Connects. As some students fade out and return to their home school full time, other students on a waiting list take their places.
Some of those students have social anxiety disorders and find the larger high school environment a difficult place to focus. Other students have children and can't afford the time to return to high school and be in a classroom all day.
Other students, like Kazmierski last year, worked half a day to save money and help support their families.
Each student, no matter their situation, must meet the graduation requirements of their high school when completing coursework.
The program design for Connects also stresses the Circle of Courage philosophy, which emphasizes mastery, generosity, belonging and independence.
Teacher Stacey Adamczyk said she tries to foster a sense of belonging in her students. Both morning and afternoon students kick their studying off with a collective activity like a game or a discussion question to build community.
"When students have that sense of belonging, they want to come to school," Adamczyk said. "They like being here. They feel supported, and that's really important to us and to the students."
Journal Sentinel reporter Erin Richards contributed to this report.
Districts combine resources for alternative charter high school
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, November 25, 2012