Karen Wrolson is keeping a tight rein on her dream: To show troublesome, expellable teenage students that positive study/work ethics will lead to rewarding careers and a good life. She knows how valuable this is for her "special students."
Lead coordinator of LaCrossroads High School for 16 years, Wrolson, 55, developed the high school within a high school for at-risk students at Logan and Central high schools at the request of the La Crosse Area Public School District, leaving La Crosse's Family and Children's Center to accept the challenge.
A counselor at Family and Children's Center, Wrolson designed its LEADERSHIP school for delinquent kids. It opened in 1979, she
developed it for five years, and it continues to operate.
"I wasn't looking for other work when I got a phone call from the school district wanting me to create something that would catch troubled kids early," she said.
Wrolson certainly had the credentials. A Drummond (Wis.) High School dropout at age 17, her life was on hold until she earned a General Educational Development (GED) high school equivalency diploma at age 23 and began college when 28. She holds masters degrees in counseling from Winona (Minn.) State University and in education from University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Wrolson evaluated the district's efforts. "It had no program that was working, and what it was doing was counterproductive. If a student was failing, he or she would be put in a classroom and assigned additional homework. This was not the answer since the student wasn't completing homework as it was."
She took little time setting up two consensus-building committees, one consisting of adults, including teachers, and the other involving at-risk students. First, she wanted to know why a student was at risk, and asked the kids - some with 25 percent attendance records - what it would take to help them. She learned they didn't like their desks, or rushing between classes, or being around jocks or preppies to the point that they wouldn't dress right for a physical education class - thus failing the course. The most profound finding, perhaps, was that they felt distant from teachers "who catered to jocks and preppies. They wanted relationships with teachers, too. They needed to talk about ‘stuff' in their lives."
On the other hand, the adult/teacher group didn't quite understand why attention was being given to kids who cause problems. Wrolson and the group discussed ways to hold the student accountable. Soon there was consensus that at-risk students deserve another chance. A tough-love high school was created, and students jumped at the chance to change their school and at-home habits.
They wanted accountability, agreeing to attend school and not cause trouble. "We'll even clean up our room at the end of the day," they said as they designed a student government system with officers, courts and judges, and decided consequences of peer infractions. "They became strict, even more so than teachers," said Wrolson. She gave an example: When calling in sick, they (not Mom or Dad) would have to make the call. If they would miss a day of school, punishment was six hours of detention. If a parent called in sick for the child, three hours would be added; if work did not meet deadlines, one hour.
"Old behaviors were being disciplined by the students themselves as they began learning leadership, responsibility and how government works. These students may be in school with huge issues, but our high school dishes out tough love and it works," Wrolson said.
She continued: "I help them any way I can. They have my phone number. If there is a fight at home, they know how to get a hold of me. Maybe we'll go to McDonald's for a talk. I communicate with them in ways (Facebook, text messages, etc.) they know. How can a student study after a huge fight at home?"
Students also learn the importance of giving back to their community. "I want them to learn empathy. If they know and value their community, chances are great that they won't do anything to bring it down. We help with many projects. Maybe it's a night of calling Bingo, or helping with Rotary Lights, volunteering at the WAFER food pantry, or picking up duties at a benefit (event) for someone who's ill."
Today there are approximately 100 LaCrossroads students. Wrolson, located at Logan, has about one-fourth of them in her classes. With a glow in her eyes and a lilt in her voice, she notes there is a 90 percent attendance rate; 95 percent of its kids graduate.
"I firmly believe the only way to gain the confidence of a student is to put the student ahead of the school. They see the light, know someone in ‘their family' is listening to them, accept ‘tough love' consequences, and gain the respect of teachers and other students."
As post-graduate successes continue, Wrolson is living out her dream.