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Life skills class teaches RRCS students the basics

Can you unclog a toilet?

How did you learn? Who taught you?

Usually it’s a parent who teaches those skills. But what if Dad isn’t in the picture or mom works long hours and doesn’t have time? What are you supposed to do?

 If you’re a student in the GED Option #2 (GEDO2*) program at Rock River Charter School (RRCS), you attend Life Skills – a hands-on program that covers everything from CPR and tax prep to investing and lawnmower maintenance.

Now in its second year, Life Skills is a 45-minute class that addresses three new topics each week. Every Friday, students split into three groups that rotate from one subject to the next in 15-minute intervals.

“The whole thing sort of came about organically,” said Jeff Winchell, a former School District of Janesville teacher who is now a paraprofessional at RRCS. “We were all just having lunch one day and the kids said they would be interested in learning more things that are life-skills related. (The teachers) were all like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’”

Along with Winchell, members of the Life Skills team are GEDO2 teachers Colleen Shaw and Robin Wauchop. Winchell handles all things mechanical and financial while Shaw focuses on health matters. Wauchop provides direction on personal business and organization.

“A lot of it is elementary, but we get the basics into the curriculum,” Winchell said. “And we’re getting better at that.”

On a recent Friday, students learned how to jump-start a car, sew on a button and operate an automated external defibrillator (AED). Past topics have included making medical appointments, obtaining an ID, setting up an investment portfolio, writing in cursive, counting change and, of course, unclogging a toilet.

“We had a student whose toilet flooded, and they were pretty much evicted because they didn’t know how to turn off the water,” Shaw said. “It caused damage to not only their apartment but the apartment underneath them.

“Some (students) don’t know how to plunge a toilet, or that you don’t put paper towels down the toilet,” she added. “We’ve had students who don’t know how to mop or fold clothes – things I would have thought were basic skills, but they just don’t know how.”

Often, a student’s home situation factors into whether or not he or she acquires certain skills. RRCS senior Dustin Kauffman considers himself lucky to have both parents at home supporting his efforts and guiding him, but he knows that’s not always the case.

“I have great parents, and it’s really unfortunate that some other kids didn’t get that,” he said. “I already know how to do a lot of things like cook meals and fix my car, but there are a lot of people that don’t know those things.”

Despite coming into the class with some skills, Kauffman – who plans to pursue a career in heavy machinery – admits he has plenty to learn.

“I’d say the biggest thing they’ve taught me is how to manage money. And I’m not gonna lie … I’m really bad at managing money,” he said. “But I’m starting to think about the future a little bit more, and just learning some of these skills is kind of waking me up to, oh man, eventually, I’m gonna be on my own.”

Wachop can relate. As a student, her personal experience mirrored Kauffman’s in that she had both parents at home. But she struggled with navigating the “traditional” education experience.

“I was definitely an Alt-Ed student – not traditional,” she said. “When I think of things (to teach for this class), I try to think of what would have been useful to me. I had support, but I didn’t know I needed to know certain things until I was on my own. 

“My answer was always to call mom, but if I don’t have a mom to call, how do I find a way to acquire these skills?” Wauchop added. “Our kids come from alternative backgrounds, and they don’t always have a role model showing them what to do or how to act.”

For students who prefer first-hand opportunities as part of their educational journey, Life Skills is a breath of fresh air.

“I’m a very hands-on learner, so sewing on buttons and actually going out and looking at how to jump-start a car was very helpful for me,” said Alix Langlois, another RRCS senior. “I don’t learn as much from screens, so I like this a lot.”

Langlois said she feels better prepared for life after high school after having taken the classes.

“You have to practice before the real deal, so it’s really important … at least it is to me,” she said. “It’s better to learn it now than just be thrown into it later.”

Another senior, Ronnieann DeValk, aspires to someday become a sonographer. Having previously worked in food service, she already knows how to cook and how to count change. But she learned something valuable during Winchell’s recent lesson on replacing the spark plug on a lawnmower.

“I know how to mow a lawn, but don’t ask me to change anything on (the lawnmower),” she said. “When (Winchell) was showing us about the spark plug, I was like, ‘Is it OK to use something else, because (my boyfriend’s brother has) been using a nickel.’ They put a nickel on top (of the cylinder), hold it down and then start it. The suction keeps the nickel there until you turn it off.”

DeValk said Winchell discouraged the nickel method, noting it is obviously safer for the mower – and the operator – to replace the plug. But DeValk’s willingness to ask a potentially embarrassing question indicates a level of trust that benefits both teachers and fellow students.

“I would say the Life Skills lessons provide an opportunity for less formal and structured learning which can lead to students coming out of their shells and being more interactive with staff and peers,” Winchell said. “As the year goes on, students typically come more out of their shells and will request help and ask questions more frequently than earlier in the year.”

Some students also find asking questions can be financially beneficial.

“Last week, I had a student tell me he pays $400 a month for car insurance,” Shaw said. “I said, ‘That’s a lot. So why is that?’ He said he was buying a car at the dealership, and they told him he couldn’t drive it off the lot without insurance, so he felt he had to take theirs. 

“I told him no, he could shop around,” she added. “So that day, he shopped around and saved himself $1,000 just by learning he didn’t have to take the dealership’s insurance.” 

Though curriculum for Life Skills is developed by RRCS teachers, Wauchop said decisions on topics are based on informal consultation with students.

“We ask every couple of months through a survey if there is something they feel we should cover that we haven’t yet,” she said. “For instance, we didn’t think of patching holes in drywall, applying for insurance through state systems or talking to landlords about apartments. And for the things that we don’t feel confident talking about, we bring in specialists to cover those.”

While some lessons might fall on deaf ears, Winchell knows the effort the GEDO2 team puts into Life Skills is worth it to help students who are willing to listen and learn. 

“No matter what you’re teaching, a lot of kids won’t do anything with it,” he admitted. “But the old adage says that if something makes a legitimate difference in one person’s life, it’s worth it. If everybody picks up something, that’s how you plant the seeds.”


*What is GEDO2?: According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, the GED Option 2 program “allows authorized school districts to use the GED test battery to measure proficiency in lieu of high school credit for students enrolled in an alternative education program.  A student who passes the GED test(s) and completes the other requirements for graduation is entitled to the traditional high school diploma.”