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Guest Author

Nov 24, 2015

How to Empower Students Through Service and Student-Centered Learning



















Personalized Learning

Stacey Adamczyk


It’s a story heard far too often: Students feel as though they don’t 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 of lost to the system? Is there a way to speak the language of the underrepresented population of students with extraordinary learning needs and help them discover what success feels like?


High school students deserve a safe learning setting, computer-based curriculum, service learning, and life experience opportunities. They deserve a hands-on, real-world approach to learning, and a foundational relationship built on trust with caring adults. With these supports students can meet state standards while contributing to their community through volunteerism, determination, and structure.


Designed to support four Wisconsin school districts, Connects Learning Center (CLC) has created a unique collaboration model that empowers students who find their 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, and for an individualized learning plan.


To better understand the students we serve, we have adopted the Circle of Courage® Philosophy to create a caring, supportive environment where they can develop and complete a course of study relevant to them, at their own pace. The idea teaches both students and teachers that mutual respect is essential, and making mistakes is part of the learning process. Our staff has worked tirelessly since our founding in 2001 to ensure learning spaces are 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 aides are 100% focused on supporting each of our 72 students. 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 the respective districts and Connects Learning Center’s lead teachers has established a referral process to identify students who are behind their peers academically, have truancy concerns, or are unable to adjust to a traditional school setting.


Working with such students can bring unique challenges—behavior being the key obstacle—but we have found having leaving your ego at the door and respecting students, no matter their situation, makes for the best learning environment. Students will push teachers to their limit and in turn, teachers will challenge students to reach their full potential. Positive reinforcement and recognition are at the core of our school environment. When a student completes a course, we celebrate by ringing 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. When a student completes all of his or her coursework, we celebrate by throwing confetti. We have found that celebrating the little things makes a big impact and is something any teacher can do to make each student feel as though their work matters.


The Not-So-Typical Learning Space

Creating a positive school culture has been an integral element of students’ success, as has creating the right learning spaces for these students to thrive in. Students treat CLC like a “home away from home.” Much like college and the workplace, our learning spaces are filled with comfy couches, chairs, and lounge furniture, as well as areas encouraging collaboration.We also 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 the feeling that they are not alone, that they belong, and that they are a success just waiting to happen.
















To further empower our students, we have adopted cloud-based curriculum from Odysseyware, which allows our students to learn at their own pace, and gives teachers the flexibility to create customized courses based on individual needs. Courses are aligned with Wisconsin’s Model Academic Standards and focus on applied knowledge, creative problem-solving, and decision-making.We also give students the power to choose their method of credit attainment, including packet-based, computer-based, experiential, or a combination of the three. Assisting them in setting goals for attendance, credit attainment, and graduation date puts the responsibility in the hands of students, adding a self-discipline aspect to the curriculum.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. 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 fieldtrips to four-year colleges, technical colleges, and apprenticeship programs so that they leave CLC with a post-secondary plan in addition 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. Students also participate in volunteer, in-service learning opportunities for organizations like Mittens and More and Pennies for Patients, further instilling a sense of community in students. We feel volunteering and giving back is a life lesson that curriculum just can’t teach. It has to be experienced, which our students love. Service-based models also function with Opportunity Youth, as seen through the work of YouthBuild.


The unique qualities of CLC can be emulated in any school. Believe in the power of collaboration and adapting to unique learning styles. Creating a culture behind a school takes time. A successful graduation rate with underrepresented students isn’t something that happens overnight. Start with the basics and add components as you go. CLC works because we’ve adapted to our students’ needs, created a place where students want to be, and celebrated their successes.


When students feel successful in academics, other parts of their lives fall into place as well, allowing students to realize their full potential.

For more, check out:AdvancePath Academics: Positive Environments + Flexible, Blended LearningWhy XQ Super School Applications Should Include Opportunity Youth and Personalization


Stacey Adamczyk is the lead teacher of Connects Learning Center. Follow School District of South Milwaukee on Twitter, @SoMilwSchools.Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update.

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.


Districts combine resources for alternative charter high school

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, November 25, 2012

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.

Cost saving

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.



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