Lauren Tracy remembers being called a “Jesus freak” by fellow Tomah High School classmates.
“I was known as ‘that Christian girl − the girl who wouldn’t do that,’” she recalled.
Her faith, and how it was received by her classmates, led her to a difficult decision. She walked away from the traditional high school setting to pursue an alternative education at Robert Kupper Learning Center. Her decision to set her own path earned her the La Crosse Tribune Extra Effort Award for Tomah High School.
Tracy, a senior and daughter of Sheila and Chad Tracy of Tomah, said it was a tough choice to leave THS after her sophomore year.
“I had trouble with self-image,” she said. “I gave up my high GPA standing, but I knew I couldn’t handle the stress and anxiety of the high school.”
The response to her religious faith didn’t come as a complete surprise.
“It was the day after I dedicated my life to serving God that I knew my life was going to be different,” she said. “I knew that by doing this, I would be persecuted for my faith. However, I chose to trust God and give him my future.”
The future led her to Milwaukee Street Academy, an alternative education program housed at Robert Kupper. She was familiar with the program because her mother worked at Robert Kupper before becoming a Title I reading teacher.
“Freshman year I complained a lot to my mom,” she said. “I had a very mature personality and was here to get my stuff done ... graduate and move on. I was ready for my future.”
Tracy discussed her situation and the opportunities at Robert Kupper with the school’s principal, Dr. Paul Skofronick.
She liked what she heard.
“We sat down, and he laid out the entire program for me,” Tracy said. “He said, ‘It’s a perfect fit for you. You’ll get it done, you’ll get right out of here … you can get what you want done, and you can go to work.”
She also reunited with teacher Tony Vitcenda, who was Tracy’s computer science teacher at Tomah Middle School before transferring to Milwaukee Street Academy. Vitcenda, who teaches the program with Teresa Hubert, welcomed the chance to become Tracy’s teacher again.
“It gave her a very safe environment to let her take her talents and run with them,” Vitcenda said. “We have a hard-line stance against bullying here. That safe environment did a lot for her.”
Tracy described Milwaukee Street Academy as both nurturing and demanding. She shares a class with just nine other students and said there is considerable one-on-one time with faculty. She said classes are “a very family setting ... I needed that one-on-one connection. It was really helpful.”
Classes meet from 8 to 11 a.m. each day, and students take standardized tests to document their academic progress. In addition, they must work at least 380 hours and complete 30 hours of community service. She said the school is inaccurately stereotyped as “the kids with drug issues or dropouts or the girls who are pregnant.”
Tracy likes the program’s work requirement. She worked at Culver’s restaurant in Tomah for nine months before starting work at a day care center in September. She looks after children from infants to 6 years old and has learned a lot on the job.
“You learn patience,” she said. “You can’t look over them ... because they have a lot to say. They will say whatever they want. Children are very honest.”
She said the day care will prepare her for a career in the ministry. She has been accepted to Bethel College in St. Paul, Minn., where she will study vocational outdoor ministry with the goal of working at Christian summer camps.
She said camps are an excellent place to clear the mind, and they offer counselors a chance to “impact youth at a young age.”
“It’s a couple of weeks away from the busyness of life − your reality,” she said.
Vitcenda believes Tracy would be an excellent camp counselor. He described her as a “very task-oriented person” who cares about other people.
“I don’t think in the three years I’ve known her that I’ve ever heard her say anything negative about anyone,” Vitcenda said. “She’s a sweet young lady.”
One hurdle Tracy didn’t have to overcome was a difficult home life. She said her parents taught her patience, a work ethic and to “finish what you started.” They were supportive of her move to Milwaukee Street Academy.
She also draws strength from her church. She attends Faith Christian Church in Mauston and said worship leader Jess Cayhart has been a major influence on her life.
“She’s very good at pushing you in your faith,” Tracy said. “She’s always there if I need somebody.”
Tracy said the challenges she faced in high school will guide her as she moves to the next stage of her life.
“Every person deserves kindness no matter what they do, no matter what they believe, no matter how many mistakes they’ve made,” Tracy said. “Every person deserves to be loved. Every person deserves a friend.”