Community Learning Exchange

NW Wisconsin - New Paradigm Partners

New Paradigm Partners, located in Birchwood, Wisconsin, is a consortium of school districts that work to provide innovative learning opportunities to cultivate sustainable, healthy rural communities in north central Wisconsin. They serve small communities ranging in populations from 250 up to 4,000 people in north central Wisconsin.

How do they promote healthy, rural communities?
Schools serve as a hub for each community, connecting students and families from the area, many who bus in from remote locations. By themselves, the districts are quite small with as few as 250 students in a K-12 system. By working together across districts in the region, NPP is able to develop collaborative approaches to support development of quality teachers through shared in-service trainings. The collaboration also strengthens their ability to attract funding to support innovative programs such as drug free communities grant to reduce youth access to alcohol.

Because the schools are so central to the life of the community, NPP connects schools and the community, helping them work together on innovative programs. For instance, the town of Weyerhaeuser brings the community into the school to read to students, offers a summer reading program, and has local artisans share their work with students.

Creating collective leadership capacity. People who grow up in this region or choose to move here, are very independent. Many stay because of the rich opportunities to be out in nature – the woods, lakes, streams – and to have their own space. Additionally, each small town has its own identity that separates it from the neighboring town. NPP has done a remarkable job of helping school districts interconnect around shared purpose. They have also helped each member organization connect to their community (see KLCC Bridge article below) to create a strong ownership of the success of the schools. They have learned how to honor the independence of people and communities and to help them also see their interdependence.

KLCC Bridge
November 2007, Volume IV, Issue 11, pages 3-4


Public school students in rural communities typically perform better than their inner-city peers, but not as well as suburban students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Rural high school graduates are less likely to enroll in college than urban and suburban peers, and adults in rural communities are less likely to hold post secondary degrees than residents in other locales. In Birchwood, Wisconsin, where tourism and outdoor recreation drive the rural economy, and where the percentage of residents over age 25 who have completed high school exceeds the national average, educational success has become a community-wide value.

But it hasn’t always been that way. When Frank Helquist became superintendent of northwest Wisconsin’s Birchwood School District 11 years ago, the rural district comprised roughly 200 square miles and serviced 330 children. School achievement was low and there was limited access to social services. Birchwood School, which serves Kindergarten through 12th grades, is one of the poorest schools in the area, with 62 percent of the children receiving free or reduced lunch, a criterion for the federal government’s Title I designation.

For the last five years, despite these challenges, the middle and high schools have been recognized as high-achieving schools statewide as recipients of the Wisconsin Promise awards. Birchwood elementary won Promise School designation for four consecutive years (2002-2006) and only missed the designation this year by one math test score. Helquist credits the relationship these schools have had with their communities and support they’ve attracted from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and other organizations for bringing about this outcome. “It’s been a long journey for the school,” he says.

One of the first meetings Helquist had as new superintendent was with New Paradigm Partners, one of the KLCC Session One host agencies. New Paradigm maintains a continuing mission of collaborating with the local schools to incorporate community involvement into school culture. The meeting crystallized Helquist’s conviction of the value of rallying the community around a collective effort to improve what was happening in the school. Previously, not only had community and parental involvement been poor, some local stakeholders were openly unsupportive of the school and of the administration. “New Paradigm Partners worked to help them understand that to make systemic change, you need to learn to work within the existing framework to make policy changes,” says Sherry Timmermann Goodpaster, director of New Paradigm Partners and a KLCC Session One participant. She adds that this new spirit has engendered a culture of high expectations for quality and achievement in school.

According to Helquist, achievement is not the only distinction that is noticeable in Birchwood School. “The atmosphere in the school is different,” he says. “With the family connections, the kids are relaxed, but extremely respectful and well behaved. [We have] raised expectations over time for academics and behavior [so] that they now think it’s the norm.”

Birchwood senior Rebecca Robotka, 17, agrees that the relaxed but structured environment contributes to the orientation toward success. “If you are going to work hard and take good classes, our school never holds you back,” she says. Sixteen-year-old junior Kayla Kristensen cites the teachers’ commitment as an important success driver. Science and math teachers organized instructional television (ITV) for students planning to take courses not offered at Birchwood. “They are willing to do that [for us].”

One of the premier programs that has an undeniably positive effect on the life of the school is the Senior Tax Exchange Program (STEP). The first STEP was launched in Kaukauna, Wisconsin, about 15 years ago. Birchwood was the second school district in the state to institute the program. Grants and local monies are channeled to provide a credit of $429.00 to senior citizens who volunteer in the schools. The hallway benches and library tables on any given school day are full of pairs of seniors and students working together on reading and math and creating powerful bonds that transcend the business aspect of the interaction. “It creates an intergenerational context of the activities in the school. [Many] kids are from broken homes, and this provides a steady adult influence,” Helquist says. Students get a warm, caring senior citizen to look out for them and the seniors feel valuable because of their measurably positive impact on the children.

Just as the senior citizens and teachers are part of the school’s success, so are the parents key players in the promotion of student achievement. “[Improving] the parental role and their leadership capacity has had a positive impact, from volunteering their time to participating with their students and following up with homework at home,” Goodpaster says. She adds that the momentum created by student success has nurtured the parents group over time, increasing the number of involved individuals while also helping Superintendent Helquist recognize the leadership potential of several active members of the parents group, some of whom he’s encouraged to run for school board positions when those positions open up.

During his time as the school district superintendent, Helquist has found reason for optimism about the future of the Birchwood School District. He sees evidence that the push toward systemic change is paying off in a way that will be long lasting. “There are enough elements in place for this [change] to become a self-sustaining thing because the school [now] expects to function this way,” he says, adding that the state does not provide adequate support for the schools, so his district has embraced the notion that they themselves must improve the education product so that more people want to become part of a good thing. The Kellogg Foundation (through KLCC) has played an important role in reinforcing what’s being done through its commitment to changing the culture around the philosophy of collective action.

“Kellogg and other vehicles are catalysts for what needs to take place,” Helquist says. “It will not work in schools or in the communities that do not have the right philosophy.” That philosophy is paying off big in Birchwood. On a recent visit to her old high school, Becky Nordback, 22, now a distance learning student at the University of Wisconsin, Platteville, summed it up. “They really do try to help you succeed, no matter what you want to do.”

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