Three WEAC members are being recognized by the Department of Public Instruction for having “a colossal impact” by helping students “see school in different and important ways.” Teacher Frank Juarez of Sheboygan (WEAC Region 3), Joanna Rizzotto of South Milwaukee (WEAC Region 7) and Mark Nepper of Madison (Madison Teachers Inc.) are among teachers featured in a special issue of the ConnectEd newsletter. Here are their stories:
Frank Juarez is a high school art teacher for Sheboygan North High School; however, he is quick to establish the importance of varied artistic contexts and connections to help students see school in a different way. “As educators,” Juarez says, “we work to help students with self-discovery through a variety of opportunities — school, community, and across the state, to create in multiple ways, to make their art relate to how they see their world.”
Juarez believes that sharing the many facets of his professional life with students through his art gallery, and providing access to artists in the Midwest is key.
Whether or not they pursue art after high school, students must be able to navigate adult-like scenarios, including working with others, accepting criticism without taking it personally, and being comfortable with who they are. This requires implementing a strong art curriculum and getting to know kids in their element.
“I can have 30+ kids in a class, and each student is unique. I don’t know what they’re thinking or feeling unless they are vocal about it,” Juarez says. This realization informed his research into how to increase literacy in art classes. Instead of defining successful artists as people outside of their community, he started thinking about what he could do to make art relevant in students’ lives today.
Juarez and a few friends traveled to four states in the Midwest to survey artists. They compiled videos, interviews, photos, and websites. Juarez uses this information as another way to expose students to contemporary art. Now, he says, “students know how to navigate digital resources, how to ask questions to do artist research, how to talk to strangers and feel confident.” Exposing students to art in this way shows them that art is not just something that lives in galleries in big cities. Art lives everywhere– in notebooks, basements, laptops, and sketchbooks.
Juarez admits that being a teacher today is extremely difficult. He also admits that he remains committed to doing the extra work it takes to connect his artistic interests and experiences outside of school to his classroom, in hopes of making an impact.
Getting to know all of his students, promoting their work, advocating for them, and exposing them to many different experiences is what sends a message to students that he cares about them. “That’s the power of education, especially in art, to get to know students’ likes and dislikes, and for them get to know each other. It’s also a testament to the relationships that are fostered at North High School, keeping an open channel of communication.”
Joanna Rizzotto has never cared much for labeling students. As a REAL Academy teacher for the South Milwaukee High School alternative learning community, she aims to offer an asset-based philosophy and program. “I don’t view my students as a bunch of weaknesses,” Rizzotto says.
“My students see school in a different and important way because I see them in a different and important way.”
The REAL Academy is a student-based program that focuses on healthy adolescent development. Their vision as an alternative program is to provide students equal access to education by addressing barriers to success through a personalized educational program. Rizzotto is trained in trauma-informed care and uses this background to teach students about how their minds and bodies work together. Through an inquiry-based learning model, students explore self-identified areas of interest related to adolescence or their own personal development.
Rizzotto and her co-teacher, Hallie Schmeling (also a WEAC 7 member), emphasize productive-worker traits, open communication, and relationship-building. “We tell the kids it’s a 24-hour commitment — what they do in the program and outside of school.” Outside of the REAL Academy, parents report that their children seem happier, more productive, and enjoy going to school.
Their work goes beyond individual research and volunteer placements. Self-assessment and reflection are also major components of the work students do. They have their own entrance, check themselves in, put their phones away, order food, and participate in their community circle each day. They work on being healthy and developing an awareness of their thoughts and patterns in order to better hear and see others.
Rizzotto is proud of the fact that REAL Academy was designed within the current system using existing resources. More than 30 educators at South Milwaukee High School participate in a student-needs network, where Rizzotto and Schmeling rely on them as resources to present REAL Academy as a positive option for students.
In this intentional design and space, students reveal how disengaged they were. Some were issued truancy citations, and now have perfect attendance for the school year. Rizzotto states, “they bring their whole selves, and do very brave work that many adults would find very challenging because it’s about getting honest with yourself.”
Outside of the REAL Academy, Rizzotto’ students are happy and productive. “It’s hard for people to know what it was like for them when they weren’t in REAL,” she says. Part of the success is having two team teachers so that students are not getting bounced among the principal, counselors, and teachers. This makes school accessible for students and their parents because it’s a one-stop shop.
Some students stay with REAL Academy all the way, while for others, it is a brief leg of their journey. However long they choose to participate, educators like Rizzotto support kids with a unique approach to re-engage in school.
Mark Nepper, a high school English teacher at West High School in Madison, believes we are better when we get to know each other. In an attempt to see more of their school, Nepper and co-advisor, Lindsey Tyser (also an MTI and WEAC member), work with students in the Diversity Alliance Club. The club, made up of about 25 students, works to recognize the diversity at West and what that diversity brings to the school.
When the club formed in 2003, they raised money to purchase flags that represented all students’ ethnicities. “Once we had the flags, we had to explain why the flags were here. Then, the program evolved to All Nations Day,” Nepper says. All year, Diversity Alliance Club students work to produce an All Nations Day performance, where student populations at West are celebrated.
“We hear from teachers that it’s their favorite day of the school year because it shines a spotlight on how broad our diversity is. Students love it because they get to see different student groups in different ways,” Nepper says. The performance culminates with a parade of the flags, where students cheer and whistle as their flags are represented.
The Diversity Alliance Club also has a broader mission, beyond the walls of West High School. Each year, participating seniors establish a focus for the club, leading the way on something they want to try, like raising money to send books, food, and other needed items to schools in different countries. The club enjoys having a partnership with a middle school in Honduras, and sends them postcards and videos from the All Nations Day performance.
To Nepper, the work of the Diversity Alliance Club shines a light on the “hidden gems” at West, helping students experience a more extensive view of their school, outside of isolated friend groups.
“It is work I find valuable,” he says. “As we focus on the idea of celebrating diversity, it makes us stronger as a school. We look at the beauty and strength that students bring, and it makes our school a better place.”