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Madison Metropolitan School District

Seniors in La Follette's Grad Academy are supported and celebrated for their resilience and brilliance

A glimpse inside the classroom of the grad academy

It's a quiet Friday morning at La Follette High School. Room G10 slowly fills with students for the start of second period.

"Grab a cookie," teacher Jeff Carlson tells each student as they enter and situate themselves at tables spaced throughout the room.

Mr. Carlson's co-teacher, Andrew Graham, checks in with a student. "Did you run this morning?" Then with another: "I'm trying to get your bus pass lined up."

When the bell sounds, about a dozen have taken seats, some checking out the word of the day – autonomy  – on the TV screen in the front of the room. (Every word this week is connected to the civil rights movement.) Mr. Carlson gets their attention. "Folks, get settled in. Send those emails, send those texts. Tell mom and dad you love them."

It's a fairly typical scene for the start of any class here at La Follette. What's different about this classroom is that students spend most of the day here, in the same room, with the same teachers and peers. It's Grad Academy, a "school within a school," in its inaugural school year. It's designed for seniors in need of a more individualized educational experience that provides structures and supports that honor their resilience, promise, and opportunity for self expression.

In all, 25 students are enrolled in Grad Academy. They are here because they want to graduate on time and, to do so, they need to recover some credits lost for a variety of reasons. For some, the pandemic created barriers. These seniors were only sophomores when COVID-19 entered the picture and schools shuttered. Some admit to making not-so-smart choices their freshman year. Grad Academy is here to help, structured in a way that allows the class to move through units in an accelerated timeframe. One student, Ariana Johnson, even graduated early, in late January 2021, becoming its first alumnus.

Now standing at the front of the room, Mr. Carlson recaps yesterday's discussion. "Yesterday we watched a video about what was happening in the Bronx in the seventies. The Bronx was burning. New York City was bankrupt. The country was coming back from a conflict overseas. There was racial upheaval." 

As Mr. Carlson brings students up to speed, Mr. Graham moves throughout the room, conferring quietly with students one on one, and from time to time punctuating the lecture with, "That's right," or "Good one, Mr. C." Their tag-team rhythm feels telepathic, like that of old friends finishing each other's sentences. It's hard to believe they met just last summer.

Grad Academy classroom

Grad Academy co-teachers Mr. Graham and Mr. Carlson tag team on lecturing

Mr. Carlson would tell me later, "We just hit it off, and we're a good team together." The approach they take to sharing the responsibility of teaching?: "Who's the right guy with the right message at the right time?" says Mr. Graham. 

This week's unit is Hip Hop Studies. Students are using hip hop as the vehicle through which they explore social studies, creative writing, and even science, using an exercise in "CER" (claim, evidence, reasoning).

Mr. Carlson continues to tee up the discussion: "It was an outlet, right? People were using hip hop music to discuss social and political issues." A tennis ball gently bounces on the floor, then returns to the hand of its owner, student Aron Torres, who is dialed in to the discussion.

Aron got off track during virtual learning because he had to step in and work to help provide for his family of six. He told me later, when we talked as a small group, "Online school was good to start, but then COVID and family trouble hit, so I had to get a job. My shift was from 2–10 p.m., so I kind of had to skip school," he explains. "But I would tell my teachers, I'm in this situation. I have to go to work, so I'm tired in the mornings. So I fell short."

teacher Mr. Graham chatting with student in class

Mr. Graham talks with student Aron Torres When La Follette's Amber Pardo and Christine Mitlyng, who worked with Interim Principal Mat Thompson to develop Grad Academy over the last few years and who meet with the teachers and a school counselor regularly, approached Aron with the idea of joining Grad Academy, he thought, "That's perfect. I get to make up for lost time."

The pandemic had a unique impact on high school students who would have otherwise had the opportunity to recover credits in person their junior year. "It was a setback," Ms. Pardo says. "Life happened." 

She and Ms. Mitlyng describe the kind of student they designed Grad Academy for. "We looked at juniors who had earned between 11 and 15 credits. They need 23 to graduate," too many to earn in a traditional school year, explains Ms. Mitlyng. These students were behind, but not so far behind that it would be impossible to catch up senior year.

Jeff Carlson, Amber Pardo, Ariana Johnson, Chrissy Mitlyng, Andrew Graham


Jeff Carlson, Amber Pardo, Ariana Johnson (Grad Academy's first graduate), Chrissy Mitlyng, and Andrew GrahamThey were also looking for students who genuinely still wanted to be at La Follette, where they have friends and might participate in clubs and athletics, and who are motivated to graduate with their peers. Students like Asia Coleman, seated opposite of Aron for today's lesson. "If it weren't for Grad Academy, I never would have talked to Aron," she says teasingly, and the two friends laugh.

Asia tells me how Grad Academy's schedule works. "Most students are in G10 for second through sixth hour, and they attend regular La Follette classes first and seventh period. Fourth and fifth period is Edgenuity," she says, referring to the online math and science curriculum students work through at their own pace. Both Asia and Aron have already finished, and because of this, they can use that time to take electives or earn credit through work. 

grad academy student

Student Asia ColemanHaving Grad Academy housed inside La Follette, rather than located offsite, is "one of the draws" to the program, Ms. Mitlyng says. "Because Asia is here, she can go take her parenting and child elective fourth hour. If we were offsite, there wouldn't be that flexibility."

Asia, who comes from a large family with four sisters and three brothers, will be the first in her family to earn a high school diploma. "Everyone in my family didn't really like the classroom setting. Even my mom and dad got their GED. So I'll be the first one to walk across the stage."

After graduation, she plans to enlist in the Army National Guard. "Mr. Graham has been helping me with my ASVAB book," the study guide for the Armed Forces entrance test, she says. He and Mr. Carlson have strong relationships with the students. "I feel like that's important," she says.

Aron agrees: "They are always glad to see you." Ms. Pardo adds that because of these relationships, the students don't want to let their teachers down. And, "they don't want to let themselves down either."

Their focus in class today is palpable as Mr. Carlson picks up an envelope containing the names of about a dozen hip hop songs – songs that represent some form of social or community issue. Students, working solo or in pairs or small groups, will receive a song.

"You're going to prove, using CER, the subject of the song, the tone, its theme, the author's purpose, point of view, imagery, and diction," he tells them, offering examples throughout.

Mr. Graham jumps in: "What's the tone? It's a feeling, right? A theme is like a life lesson or message. The author's purpose? Explain why you think the author wrote this song. You might have to do a little research. Diction? Maybe it's colloquial, slang, poetic, abstract, pedantic."

Before distributing the songs, they want to investigate with the class two examples to model the assignment for them. "These two songs are considered the first two songs that took from R&B and soul music and infused that with disco, jazz, and Motown, and put a completely different beat to it," Mr. Carlson says. 

He and Mr. Graham hand each student a packet containing lyrics to the two songs so students can follow along. A YouTube ad on the TV plays. Then, a beat drops and "I said-a hip, hop, the hippie, the hippie to the hop hip hop-a you don't stop the rock…" fills the room. It's Rapper's Delight. Onscreen, the Sugarhill Gang, flanked by dancers rocking mullets, feathered hair, and snug-fitting polyester suits, perform.

"It might seem cheesy, but this was unlike anything anyone had ever seen," Mr. Graham tells students. When the song ends, he asks them to chime in with what they think the theme and other components of the song are. A few comment on how the authors are just having fun and how there isn't necessarily a profound meaning to lyrics like, "You see I'm six foot one and I'm tons of fun and I dress to a T. You see, I got more clothes than Muhammad Ali." 

"That's right, this is escapism. And that's expression," Mr. Carlson confirms, nodding. "Something that was initially coming from the Harlem Renaissance – the first time people of color were allowed to have fun. Others wanted in."

He pulls up the second video on YouTube, The Message, by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. "It's like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under," the song starts.

By comparison, this song feels like the opposite of escapism. Mr. Carlson reminds students of the purpose of hip hop culture – to bring awareness to things that were happening to people in the inner city. "With struggle like this comes a beautiful thing. No pressure, no diamond, right? To be able to make something beautiful out of something completely ugly is the reason hip hop music has such clout. It's real. It's authentic." Moving on, he asks, "What's the point of view?"

"First person," a student answers.

Mr. Graham adds from the back of the room, "Good call." He's at a table now, checking in with a student who is sharing ideas with him.

"Let's talk about the theme of this song," continues Mr. Carlson. Students point to a variety of examples in the lyrics that reflect struggle.

I can't take the smell, can't take the noise. Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice.

My brother's doin' bad, stole my mother's TV. Says she watches too much, it's just not healthy.

I'm close to the edge. I'm tryin' not to lose my head.

As students offer their insights on the lyrics, Mr. Carlson responds, "Yeah, to say you repped the Bronx was like saying, 'Hey, I've seen some stuff. When I'm telling you things about my life, hear me.”

The conversation turns to symbolism – Neon King Kong standin' on my back – then to pedantic language – sacroiliac – and then, current events – I swear I might hijack a plane.

The bell rings for students to move to their third period class. Students in G10 take a break, some staying in the room to check their phones, others using it as an opportunity to get up and move around in the hall.

teacher Mr. Carlson talking to a student

Mr. Carlson conferring with a studentWhen the second bell rings, the discussion returns to hip hop's culture of resilience, perseverance, and making the best of a situation. Talking with me later, Mr. Carlson connects these qualities to his students. "These kids are incredibly resilient. I know from experience what some of them go through. I lived it." For good reason, he doesn't shy away from sharing his experiences with students.

"I share some pretty personal things with them," such as mental health struggles he experienced as a young adult coming from a family culture that didn't strongly believe in mental health support. He models vulnerability to show students he has used some of the skills he's trying to convince them are useful, like asking for help or not being too proud to acknowledge struggle.

"Some of these students have some pretty significant self-esteem issues, and motivation issues, which is not uncommon," Mr. Graham says, adding, "By no means do any of these kids struggle with whether or not they are capable of performing the work."

In addition to having the motivation to be here, they think part of the reason they persist is because they are honest. Mr. Graham says to his students, "I'm not going to tell you it's always fun. But, do you want to graduate?"

When Asia and Aron hear this, they jump in. Says Asia, "You have to want to graduate and try. If you don't want that, then…" Aron adds, "They'll give you the opportunity, but it's up to you to do the actual work." 

Another part of the reason students continue to be engaged is that they have voice and agency about some elements of their learning. For example, they get to pick some of the books they read. "A recent book, Concrete Rose, is an amazing book," says Aron. Asia adds, "This is The Hate You Give author, the prequel story about her dad." They also just finished a novel by Ann Petry, The Street.


These are books they wouldn't otherwise be able to get at La Follette. Grad Academy is able to buy books thanks to the Board of Visitors, La Follette's alumni association, which donates to the program through the Madison Public Schools Foundation. When they heard about Grad Academy and that there was a group of students who, with a little extra support, could graduate on time, they held a fundraiser.

Other than Mr. Carlson's and Mr. Graham's teacher allocation, Grad Academy is funded through grants – for books, curriculum materials, furniture, and so on. Eventually, when conditions allow, they would like to take students on field trips and offer experiences in the community. That's part of the vision they have for the future of Grad Academy.

"We do hope it expands," Ms. Mitlyng says. "We've talked about adding juniors at some point, students who would need two years of extra credit recovery time."

Ms. Pardo agrees. "We talk as educators about how we need to redesign school and do school different, and this program was designed to do school in a way that holds students' attention. How great would it be if, in ninth grade, tenth grade, eleventh grade, students could do school in a way so that by twelfth grade there is even more flexibility and independence and opportunities to be out in the community?"

They imagine that one day, they could tap into ESY (Extended School Year), to work with incoming freshman and other grades to help them catch up to a point at which, by the time they are seniors, they are able to finish strong, do an internship or job shadow, volunteer in the community, work in an elementary school for part of a semester, or take a class at Madison College.

Back in class, the hip hop lesson is wrapping up. A slideshow of images from the Bronx in the seventies and eighties plays on the TV. A man wearing tube socks and roller skates pirouettes, shouldering a boom box. In another photo, buildings have been destroyed, and community members, shovels in hand, are surveying the destruction and rolling up their sleeves.

"You think these young gentlemen are civil engineers?" Mr. Carlson quips. "No, they said, 'Look, no one is helping us, so we better just do this ourselves.' Sometimes, when you're in circumstances in which you feel like you do not have help, you fight or you flee. But a lot of these young families didn't have anywhere to flee to. So you make it better."

"Mr. C talked about these kids being resilient. They are. And they have goals," Mr. Graham says with a pause. "Some people never asked them what they were."

As for Aron, when I ask him, he says that apart from attending a college where he can study science and play baseball, "My older brother and I are really focused on getting my younger brothers to go to college for four years. Whatever college they want. We want to help our parents pay for that."