This is a remarkable place. A place born out of the passion and hard work of a handful of young, idealistic people, holding on to the belief that with hard work and a committed group, any dream is achievable.
Twenty years later, it is a place where students are called to do their best work and encouraged in their strengths rather than penalized for their shortcomings. It is a place where the drive to succeed is cultivated, but not coerced. It is a place where missteps and mistakes are seen as opportunities for growth. What could be better for the adolescent brain —simultaneously confident and unsure— feeling its way into the unfamiliar territory of adulthood?
This is a remarkable place. It is a place where some of the best and brightest minds have willingly chosen to live a simple life —even by teacher standards— so that they can be part of an ongoing experiment. So that they can have a voice in their professional lives. So that they can be part of an educational organization that reflects their values.
This is a place where elders —those who helped found the school more than 20 years ago— continue to be an integral part of the school community, teaching courses, sitting on committees, and helping to develop the school further.
This is a place where alumni, graduated not so many years ago, have the opportunity to return and teach. It is a place where young teachers are given a chance to see whether they have the chops to gain respect from questioning and boundary-pushing teens —not much younger than themselves.
This is a place where students are encouraged to develop their interests, to question authority, to think for themselves, to work collaboratively, to be creative. But it is also a place that expects kindness and respect for others.
This is a place that, with a student population of 70, in a rural community of 4300 residents, has 15% of its students coming from other countries. Over the past three years, Youth Initiative High School has hosted students from Rwanda, Pakistan, Germany, France, Mexico, Ecuador, Russia, Switzerland, Korea, and Japan, not to mention many others from different parts of the United States. It is a place where “Boarding Students” live with host families in the community.
This is a place that not only teaches students how to think critically —how to use their intellects— but also prizes the arts, movement, music and song as well as more practical “life skills” like sustainable agriculture, nutrition, foraging for wild foods, auto mechanics, welding, and home repair — all given significant weight in the curriculum, with the understanding that intellect without heart is not a healthy path forward.
This is a place that inspires and encourages curiosity and creativity —not only in thought, but also in action —a place where graduation requires every student to participate in at least one school play, a place that teaches “circus arts,” public art, Qi-Gong — a place where one is guaranteed to hear a song or a guitar wending its way through the school corridors, no matter what time of day.
It is a place where, each year, every class takes a week-long wilderness expedition which emphasizes the importance of nature, resilience, and the need for strong community (not to mention critical planning skills).
It is an inter-generational hub in which faculty (and student) parents can find brief respite from the tiring work of child-rearing while enthusiastic teens love and entertain their small children.
It is a place where there is dialogue about tuition and fees — fostering a culture that would rather make due with less than turn someone who would like to be part of the school community away for lack of funds. It is a place where many students pay their own way.
This is a place where volunteerism is necessary to keep the school running, and everyone is expected to pitch in at the school and in the community at large.
It is a place where students sit alongside faculty and parents on the board and all school committees, while simultaneously holding responsibilty for cleaning their school at the end of every day. It is a place that cultivates respectful listening and one that gives all stakeholders a voice. It is a place where all students must fulfill 56 hours of community based service work every school year with the understanding that the health of the school is tied to the health of the broader community.
It is a place where students have a once-weekly, closed meeting to discuss student matters without the weight or judgment of adult voices.
I write this as my youngest child draws in towards graduation, with a pounding sense of gratitude for the growth and expansion we have all experienced by being a part of this community. And as I write, I realize that the depth of my gratitude makes the school sound idyllic, too good to be true — something unattainable to others.
But the truth is that while these things are true, the experience — as written above— eludes the deeper truths of more than 20 years of hard work and commitment. Much like a family, it is fraught with challenges, conflicts and complications —some of which have threatened to close the school doors or called for compromising the very ideals that make it stand out today. Youth Initiative High School has been the sustained commitment of a handful of people —holding a long term vision of its ideal and bolstered by many others who have contributed needed energy — helping to tuck-point, prop up, or propel the school forward for a stretch of time, ushering us into the vibrant and soul-filled school that we see today.
For me, the biggest takeaways from our experience in this wonderful, eccentric community have been:
1) That anyone, anywhere, can build a dream. It may take time and it will certainly require commitment, but if you share your dreams with others —if you build a community around that dream— the work will be a lot more fun and rewarding (though still, of course challenging!)
2) That diversity is essential to resilience. When we make room for a variety of voices, without compromising the vision, we end up with stronger organizations and more personal investment.
3) The increasing recognition that creating anything meaningful requires commitment first and foremost, and that commitment is an act of love. When we commit ourselves to something good, when we hold on to an ideal and continue to strive for it through time and test, when we have faith in the people who have chosen to embark on this journey alongside of us —be it rough seas or smooth sailing— when we are willing to put in sweat equity, to engage in uncomfortable conversations, and hold the entirety in a light of love and respect, we are bound to find beauty and meaning.
To quote Wendell Berry; “The work of planet saving will be humble and humbling, and insofar as it involves love, pleasing.”
I turn to this quote often, believing that it holds true for humanity as well: if we are to save ourselves we must be humble. We must be willing to engage in humbling work, but if there is love involved, it will be both pleasing and rewarding.
And so, as our son moves through his final weeks at this lovely, oddball school and our family weathers yet another transition, I feel compelled to pay homage to the place where he, and we as a family, have learned so many valuable lessons —a place that has given us the opportunity to share meaningful work, humble work, love-filled work, with such an incredible community of people —those who have come before us as well as those who will follow.
(And finally, a big THANK YOU! to DongMin Son for all the beautiful photos of the teachers and students of Youth Initiative High School!)
For those who want to see an animated glimpse of Youth Initiative High School in the context of a larger community, the following is a video narrative, created by senior Imani Boswell as part of her senior project. She describes it as follows:
“This video was created as my Senior project for Youth Initiative High School. My project is a visual collage that portrays happiness in all forms as well as the search to have a deeper understanding of self. If I leave a prospective viewer of my project with anything, I would want them to understand the life and beauty around them…”
Every time I read these (great!) stories, I wonder who wrote them. Why do you not publish the author?
Oh..thank you! Whenever there is no author noted, it is me…Sheila Sherwin, founder and curator of RealSmallTowns. But I have been lucky enough to have a few others contribute to the blog and when I do I always publish the author, most notably Matt Voz, Annie Zystra and Lydia Turino.
Sheila, thank you for writing this. It warms my heart to have this school in my neighborhood and to watch so many incredibly talented, curious, and optimistic young people graduate from it. We are blessed to have such a school in this small community.
This is beautifully written, poignant and thoughtful. where did that gene come from? Are you sure you’re not adopted? We look forward to will’s graduation in May and are grateful that he had the Youth Initiative experience.
Mom and Dad
The bright spirit of the school and its students shine through in these words and pictures. I take back everything I said about all of those bake sales!
Sheila, even though you are my daughter, I am continually delighted with the wonderful way you have with words. And, very proud!
I am so grateful to have Ethan in the YIHS community and to be able to participate as a parent. Your article and the photos have me reflecting on this Freshman year and looking forward to the three yet to come! Thanks Sheila.
Beautifully written, and represents so much of how I feel about YIHS. Thank you.
Always Sheila, you write with such clarity and words from the heart! The YIHS parent body
will feel a void when Will and his parents graduate in May! A big thank you for all of the hard work and love you and John have given to our community over the years.
Beautiful, Sheila! I am so proud to be a part of this school and to have come to this community for it. Thank you for such a fabulous portrayal. Viva la YIHS!
Looks amazing, wonderful! But, maybe I missed it – where is this school?
The school is in Viroqua, Wisconsin!
Thank you for this lovely tribute, Sheila! I am already feeling the ache in my heart with the coming graduation… and so much gratitude!
I have the honor and pleasure of sharing this sentiment. My daughter had the opportunity to attend YIHS for 3 years as a boarding student, coming from NY and Grenada and will also be graduating this year. Our family will be forever grateful for this experience. YIHS has made the difference in demonstrating the true meaning of education. It is different from any other educational setting we have encountered. The community thrives on acceptance of each individual and provides resources for optimizing growth. It exposes and maximizes the potential of students by providing an extensive set of learning tools to support the diverse learning styles. It increases self confidence. Our daughter has allowed herself to be challenged and as a result has built on her knowledge and blossomed into a well rounded individual with a deeper appreciation for her environment and the world at large . We are so thankful for the support from the YIHS community and for this humbling journey.