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Another Gem in Middleton's Crown

The City of Middleton has long been riding the wave of exceptional.

From its top ranking in Money Magazine’s Best Places to Live in 2007, to hitting the top 10 on the list for several consecutive years beyond, Middleton’s fame for green spaces, great schools, livability, local flare, and innovation are far spread.

So it’s no surprise then, in this place so comfortable with excellence and exceptionalism, that a school of innovation would sprout, grow, and flourish from a group of community leaders, educators, families, and researchers.

Clark Street Community School is a public charter high school in the Middleton Cross Plains Area School District that is pioneering and leading the way for education innovation by putting into practice researched-based theory on educating globally competitive students. “The school is a learning environment for educators, students and families alike”, explains CSCS principal, Jill Gurtner, “we are all working to create a new future for education, and we’re sharing our learning with academics, education advocates, district leadership, and educators within and beyond our district.”

Housed in a compact, light-filled building adjacent to Middleton High School, Clark Street Community School is in its fifth year of operation with graduates attending universities and colleges locally, nationally, and internationally. The school boasts personalized pathways for students, placed-based learning experiences, competency-based progression, college preparedness, project ideation and management, and an environment where students are safe and encouraged to take authentic risks and make mistakes so they can truly learn. “Everything changes when you take letter grades, and GPAs, and percentages out of the learning equation”, laughs Rebecca Turk, CSCS graduate, “suddenly it’s about what you’re actually learning. You have to develop the tenacity to re-work it, or re-think it, or re-design it, to truly show your level of competency, which for me was a lot harder than answering questions on a quiz or test.”

The rigor Turk describes is evident everywhere at the school. Visit Clark Street Community School and you’ll see students making and designing cigar box guitars in the Makerspace, while they learn about the history and culture around Blues music. You’ll find students trying to ‘prove it’ mathematically with geometry theorems while simultaneously exploring rhetorical techniques in politics to draw conclusions and write analyses. They’re studying radioactivity, blasting self-designed rockets at a local farm, learning epidemiology through the lens of a zombie apocalypse, and bridging generational gaps by working with seniors, academics, and dementia advocates with WI Department of Health's Music and Memory Program.

And the students are reading - a lot.

Guided by a group of educators committed to interdisciplinary literacy, the students are reading local authors, as well as the classics, memoirs, teen lit, business books and everything in between. You’ll find students deep in the latest Go Big Read and digging into UW Great World Text curriculum, like Shakespeare’s The Tempest. They’re also heading to book readings of favorite authors at the WI Book Festival including the likes of Michael Perry and Jeannette Walls.

And the community partnerships hardly end there. “The school is taking full advantage of the rich resources Middleton and the surrounding communities have to offer”, says Mary Lee McKenzie, CSCS Educator, “it’s fully embedded in the instructional design of the school.” Clark Street students are working with Pope Farm Conservancy on creating interactive experiences around the history and the science of this unique location. They are training as ‘pilots’ with the Cycling Without Age program, and have met with the Danish Founder, Ole Kassow, on his recent visit to Madison. They are exploring art and design at Taliesin. They’ve partnered with Fond Blanc Foundation to understand the society, culture, and humanitarian issues surrounding Haiti. They are piloting a Hip Hop education program on student agency in conjunction with UW-Madison and a grant from the Spencer Foundation. They’re out enjoying local parks and trails for winter sports and lifetime fitness. And they’ve organized and implemented a trip to New York City to understand finance, economics, and the future of work. The list goes on.

“The opportunities to learn from, and collaborate with, experts, advocates, academics and community leaders in authentic relationships is unparalleled at Clark Street”, says Bryn Orum, CSCS educator, “It’s these types of experiences that really set our kids apart on their college applications”.

Unique college applications aside, what might be most striking about Clark Street Community School is the community itself. Founded on the principles of Restorative Practices and anchored by Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset, students and educators are shaping a common language and culture around self-advocacy, acceptance, forgiveness, accountability, and presence. Students are learning necessary collaborative skills through embedded and creative feedback sessions on argumentative, informative, narrative and technical writing pieces as well as formal presentations of learning. They’re mentoring elementary students and designing projects together in the Makerspace. They’re training as bike mechanics so they can eventually operate a community-based bike shed and an ‘earn-a-bike’ program.They are delving into passion projects, challenging themselves, and stretching their boundaries.They host problem-solving circles and engage in community celebrations. And daily, students and educators alike take time to practice mindfulness by walking the community built labyrinth, offering time for silence in morning meetings, and creating inclusive spaces at every opportunity through ongoing community building activities.

“The school could not exist without the support of the district and collaborations with our community partners” says Gurtner, “the commitment to innovation in an already amazing place continues to fuel my passion, and we welcome more people to engage with us and get involved.”

Still in its early stages, Clark Street Community School is yet another gem in the exceptional community that is Middleton - one, this author is sure, is only beginning to reveal its true value.