When the School District of Fort Atkinson Board of Education approved a first-ever alternative high school in 1999, it began a journey for teacher Jude Hartwick and his many Crossroads program students, resulting in newfound confidences, diplomas and a greater appreciation for the community in which they live.
Hartwick, a public-school educator for 33 years, 22 of them in Fort Atkinson, is one of 13 teachers retiring at the end of the 2020-21 school year. Prior to his June retirement he reflected about Crossroads, the alternative high school he helped create, and a place where more than 300 seniors found their path for earning a Fort Atkinson High School diploma.
All of these students met the state’s criteria to be considered, at risk. An at-risk student is someone who is “at risk” of not graduating. Often, they are two grade levels behind their peers.
Prior to arriving in Fort Atkinson Hartwick spent 11 years at the Palmyra-Eagle High School, and Milton and Milwaukee school districts as a special education teacher. During, 1998, his first year in Fort Atkinson, he familiarized himself with the student body by going through four years of yearbooks for the current student body.
Hartwick was amazed to find the senior class was 42 students smaller than the freshman class four years earlier. This was after he painstakingly checked records to account for students who had moved away or transferred to another district.
The bottom line, he concluded, was that 42 students had dropped out of high school, after turning 18, during their senior year. The impact of this at the high school, he said, was an 84 percent graduation rate. The impact to the students was far greater, he said, since most jobs require at least a high school education.
Always the optimist, Hartwick saw the findings presented an opportunity for the school district to explore starting a high school alternative education program with the goal of helping prevent future students from dropping out. He knew the Wisconsin Department of Education was making five-year grants available to districts who needed start-up money to fund alternative education programs.
Hartwick said he began the process with no guarantees the school board would approve an alternative school even if a grant was approved. With no one discouraging him either, he said he pushed on.
The result was a $90,000 grant for the first three years, with smaller amounts the final two years. The start-up money was used to pay his salary, purchase classroom materials, hire a teacher’s aide and buy a used van to transport students on field trips and to school if needed.
Hartwick said Joe Overturf, who had served the Fort Atkinson school district as Special Education and Pupil Services director from 1985 to 2007, reviewed the grant before it was submitted and helped tremendously with budgetary concerns involved. With approval from the school board and school administration, Hartwick was tasked with building the Crossroads program, for the 1999-2000 school year, from the ground up.
Students must apply to enter the program. The review team includes Hartwick, a member of the high school administrative team and a school psychologist or guidance counselor who sits down with the student and their parent(s) or guardians to go over everyone’s expectations.
Hartwick tells them regular telephone contact might be necessary to ensure their child’s success. Everyone understands a student can be removed from Crossroads for not following behavior expectations.
With this in mind, Hartwick said the program permits a student to reapply, with the same parties present, to start anew.
“If I can help them begin to feel good about themselves, and the community where they live, it goes a long way in helping them believe they can graduate,” he said.
Though alternative high schools generally are begun for the same reasons, their success rates aren’t always the same. Hartwick said the state’s average graduation rate for alternative high schools is 25 to 35 percent.
Over the past 22 years he says he has worked with around 370 students. Factoring in the 40 who dropped out of the program, and those who moved away, Hartwick and Crossroads have accomplished an 81 percent graduation rate.
Anyone who has been to the school’s current stand-alone Grove Street location knows each graduate is remembered with a photograph which line the walls around the classroom.
Fort Atkinson High School Principal Dan Halvorsen said, “Since Jude and Crossroads first started, the graduation rate has consistently improved and maintained at a high level that is far above the state of Wisconsin average. From a school perspective that is great, but from a student standpoint and the ability to earn an actual high school diploma, upon completion of the program to put toward their future successes, that is absolutely crucial.”
Halvorsen, who became principal in 2013, said the graduation rate has not fallen below 95 percent since he has been here.
Hartwick acknowledges there are perceptions about alternative schools and the students who attend them. To this he says: “These aren’t bad kids, they’re looking for a way to be saved and to be productive. They come from many backgrounds. They aren’t druggies, or come from bad parents. They just have given up. What I’ve learned from teaching these students is that a lack of sleep is the only true commonality.”
There are many reasons why students fall behind in earning credits toward graduation, he said.
“Being habitually truant from school is probably the biggest reason,” Hartwick said, noting that the state of Wisconsin definition says, “A habitual truant is a pupil who is absent from school without an acceptable excuse for part, or all of, five or more days on which school is held during a school semester.”
Factors contributing to truancy, he said, can include students who are emotionally fragile, who don’t, or can’t, cope with the anxieties and stress of attending the regular/traditional school.
Hartwick said parents who are working, or sleeping, when their teenagers are supposed to be leaving for school, sometimes create opportunities for truancy. Students also might find reasons for avoiding school when there are conflicts with other students, or disagreements with staff, he said.
It’s not uncommon for foster children, who come to Fort Atkinson from high schools in other states, to have gaps in their educations, he said.
Some of these students make up the lost ground, while others struggle without an option like Crossroads. The program works closely with Municipal Judge Chuck Frandson to provide students opportunities for success following truancy court.
Commenting on the program’s better than 80 percent graduation rate, former Fort Atkinson High School Psychologist Joe Kirt said: “Crossroads is unique because of Jude. Other school districts purchased the Crossroads curriculum he wrote, but only he could deliver it in a manner that made students commit to earning a diploma when they had given up at the high school.”
Having worked with Hartwick the last eight years, Halvorsen said, “Where some alternative education programs just basically do the same things as high schools do, just slower and in a smaller environment, Jude specifically worked to avoid that roadmap and instead worked through competencies relatable to students’ needs while working through relationship building and strength-based mindset.”
Overturf explains it this way: “I think you need to remember that most, if not all, of the kids Jude served had been repeatedly defeated and rejected by various social systems that were designed to serve students. Those institutions might be the family unit, the school system, the juvenile justice system and others. Not only did Crossroads provide a second chance and new hope, it was designed for students to be successful based on their abilities.
“When students initially entered the program, many were worn down and defeated,” he added. “It was usually in a manner of weeks of being in the program that you’d notice a skip in the student’s hitch, and a newfound confidence emerge. Crossroads was predicated on understanding individual students and what they needed, not a reformation of what they previously experienced.”
Making a similar observation, Halvorsen said, “Jude’s hard work, steadfast commitment to students and getting them ready for the next steps in their lives, despite any shortcomings they may or may not have, has been instrumental in the success of so many students.”
Hartwick has received the school district’s prestigious Wildermuth Award and is a State of Wisconsin At Risk Regional Award recipient.
Typically, the Crossroads program operates with five to eight students attending the morning session and a similar number of different students attending the afternoon class. The curriculum is built around the expectation that students will have a part-time job. Many students come to the program already having had several part-time jobs. Interview and employment skills are emphasized.
Hartwick said students hopefully are learning that showing up for school on time is a life skill that transfers to the workplace with their jobs.
In the process of writing a new curriculum, Hartwick said, “The department heads of each content area reviewed the curricula, as did former high school Principal Paul Pelnar, who added a much-needed competency on study skills. The Crossroads curriculum was published in 2001. To date 70 school districts have purchased the curriculum which sells for $620.
“Matt Noll, our future Crossroads instructor, helped with reviewing and offering valuable advice on the English competency,” Hartwick said. “Culminating essays are embedded in each subject area and Noll suggested how to integrate them. English is not a standalone skill in the real world and we didn’t want it to be in the competencies either.
“The competency-based program is comparable to earning a B- or better,” he added. “You have to know the material, as opposed to passing with a D- and being passed along to the next grade. It’s not about seat time. You can learn so much with a high school’s detailed curriculum, but students often tell me they learn more at Crossroads because they are forced to learn the basics in order to be competent.”
Fort Atkinson’s past and present are covered in the local history competency.
Hartwick said this is by design for several reasons. In addition to not always seeing school in a positive light, at risk students might not view their town favorably either.
Despite this, his students generally are not the graduates who move to out-of-state cities for employment. Rather, Hartwick said it’s more typical for students to seek jobs in the area or stay in Fort Atkinson. If they marry and have families, the school district is going to be coming back and asking them to help pass building referendums.
With this being a fairly normal pattern, Hartwick said he believes he has a responsibility to show students why this area was settled, who developed the town and why it still is a good place to live.
“I think everyone should learn about our history, our shining bright spots like William Dempster Hoard and Lorine Niedecker,” he said.
Local businesses have welcomed many Crossroad students with plant tours through the years. Some of them include Spacesaver Corp., Jones Dairy Farm, The Ball Corp., the Fireside Dinner Theater, Pizza Hut, Opportunities, Inc., Dominos, Edward E. Jones and the Fort Atkinson Area Chamber of Commerce. Some of these tours have led to employment for the students.
The program introduces them to the importance of being a local volunteer. Hartwick said students have experienced this by helping prepare for the American Association of University Women book sale, planting trees along city terraces, participating in the Hoard Historical Museum cleanup and scraping bricks to be used at the new Haumerson’s Pond warming shelter. One of the missions of Crossroads is for students to know their community and become engaged citizens.
As Hartwick prepares to hand the baton off to Noll, a 22-year veteran of the high school English department, he has nothing but appreciation for how the Fort Atkinson community has accepted Crossroads students and the program’s goals for them.
“The community has embraced us whenever we’ve gone out to visit a city department, whether it be the wastewater treatment plant, the city council chambers, police department or one of the volunteer organizations,” he said. “We’ve never had a permanent home, and despite being moved around, the community still supports us.”
At one time Hartwick considered leaving for a neighboring district, but stayed because of how the community had embraced Crossroads.
“A buy-in goes both ways,” he said. “The community bought in and supported these kids. I support the community. I stayed.”
Going forward, he said, “It’s essential the school district understands at risk students usually suffer from low self-esteem to begin with — Crossroads offers these students hope.”
As the Crossroads program transitions from one instructor to the next, Kirt offered this: “Without Jude, Crossroads never exists and hundreds of Fort Atkinson residents wouldn’t have diplomas.”
Echoing that sentiment, Overturf added, “What I consider the most important trait is Jude never gave up on a kid. His students knew Jude would provide tough love and unconditional support. These things made Crossroads a success.”
His friends say Hartwick has been on the receiving end of this too.
“Even though Jude was the core of Crossroads, he has designed an alternative model which is a prototype for others to model in this school district and across Wisconsin,” Overturf said. “What a lasting legacy he has left.”
A retirement party has been scheduled for July 30, from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Rock River Park clubhouse for community supporters of Crossroads, former students and friends of Jude’s to attend.