Rock River Charter School students defy classification

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Sunday, May 7, 2017

JANESVILLE—It might be the smokers' faults.

For nearly two decades, Rock River Charter School has represented, in the public's imagination, the notion of “alternative high school.”

After the school day, kids gather to smoke in front of the building. These are not kids with khaki pants and button-down shirts. They set their own styles, and those styles can be intimidating to adults driving down Milwaukee Street.

It doesn't help that the school is located next to a head shop.

The impression: drugs, tough kids, expelled students.

Here's the reality: Rock River Charter School serves complicated kids with untidy lives who can't be classified by ticking off a box such as “truant” or “delinquent.”

These are students such as Tanner Chilson, 18, who has been working for more than two years so he can help his family and pays his own bills.

The school also serves students such as Max Hernandez, the father of Yael, a 6-month old. The child's mother became seriously ill after giving birth, and he's shouldering the mixed blessing/burden of fatherhood while working and going to school.

The school doesn't take expelled students. It does take kids who might be traditionally associated with “alternative” high schools such as school-age parents, quirky kids who don't like the atmosphere at high school and smart kids who hate school.

Students who attend Rock River have one thing in common: They are at risk for not graduating, said Lisa Peterson, school principal and district coordinator for charter school development.

When students fill out an application for Rock River Charter School, they are asked to check off barriers to graduation.

It's a checklist of human misery: medical concerns; homelessness; emotional abuse or neglect; physical or sexual abuse; mental health concerns; drug or alcohol use; being on probation; and family changes, which includes divorce, death, separation and illness.

Other check boxes include pragmatic issues such as incomplete assignments/homework, truancy and suspension for discipline issues.


The school is made up of four programs:

-- Alternative high school/school-aged parent program: The alternative high school is like a smaller version of traditional high school with students moving from class to class.

The school-aged parent program serves students who are pregnant or parenting, including boys. Parents can bring their children to school. Most of the school-aged parents also attend the alternative high school.

-- Reading and Math Program (RAMP): The program focuses on raising students reading and math skills so they can get into the GED Option 2 program.

-- GED Option 2: Students must be at least 17 and seniors.

To get into the program, students must do well on the reading and math tests. Then they are allowed to take a two-semester program that covers their credit deficiencies. Community service is required.

-- E-Learning: Students must be seniors and have completed at least 13.5 credits. They spend a minimum of two hours a day at school but have the option of doing more.


Some students use two or three programs.

Hernandez originally went to Parker High School. By the time he was a sophomore, he was so behind that his counselor told him that even if he went to summer school he wouldn't earn enough credits to graduate.

He started in RAMP to raise his reading scores. When his girlfriend was pregnant and after Yael came along, the parenting teachers gave him books and videos and guided him through the basics of being a dad.

“They helped me out from the beginning,” Hernandez said.

Now he's in GED Option 2 program and ready to graduate.

He's been accepted at Blackhawk Technical College and wants to be a welder. It's a job that will allow him, if he saves, to have a “nice little house” for his new family.

Chilson started online school about the time his dad got cancer. The online option allowed him to work and go to school.

When he got behind, it looked like he would have to return to Craig High School. He only needed a few credits, and he didn't want to be at school all day long.

Meanwhile, things had gotten more difficult at home. There was a lot of arguing about school, and Chilson was aware that his presence cost his family money. He was ready to be on his own, he said.

Now he rents a room in the home of his girlfriend's sister and her boyfriend, and he's working in the Beloit Club kitchen.

School along with its social drama and academics seems far removed from his life.

“Except for reading and math, I found a lot of school useless,” Chilson said. “I think they should have more consumer math, real practical stuff, for real life.”

Like the other students at Rock River, when Chilson graduates in May, he will receive a Parker or Craig diploma.

After graduation, he plans to apply to Chrysler plant in Belvidere, Illinois, and Union Pacific, both good jobs with benefits, he said.

He appreciates Rock River Charter School but acknowledged it had a reputation.

“At Craig, the whole vibe off of kids was that this is the school for troubled kids, for people who have problems,” Chilson said. “None of the kids here are really like that. It's just a school for kids who have different situations, something going on in their lives that makes it hard for them to go to school.”

His high school friends think he's no longer in school.

“They think I dropped out because I didn't want to go or because I was fishing all the time,” Chilson said. “They don't know what is really going on in my life.”

Students at Rock River have “more on their plate than kids who go to, like, Craig or Parker,” he said.

Those kids have parents and probably only have to pay their cellphone bills, he said.

“Here, many of the kids are on their own,” Chilson said.

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