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Hillcrest School

Grade Level
High School

HILLCREST SCHOOL (Kenosha Unified School District) is an alternative school that serves students who have experienced difficulties in traditional settings. Staff members don’t mince words about the challenges that students face. “If suspensions worked, we wouldn’t have kids in our school,” Jason Paproth, intervention specialist said. “That consequence has not worked for our kids. That’s why they are here. We have to find different ways to reach our kids.”

The bedrock principles that anchor Hillcrest’s staff are a commitment to universal expectations and an unwavering belief in the value of each student. Principal Eitan Benzaquen understands that students want to be acknowledged and recognized. “Recognizing each other is human,” he said. “We start heavily increasing the positive behaviors that we want to see and recognizing those when we are teaching them,” Paproth added. The school also began increasing the use of restorative practices and trauma-sensitive practices.

“When students get to us they’ve had such a negative experience in school and are recognized all too often for all of the negative things that they do or the things they don’t know how to do well,” said Erin Sturino, program support teacher. “Coming here and being recognized for the things they are doing well… helps with relationship building, it helps with work completion, it helps with a ton of stuff.”

Benzaquen said this required a mindshift for teachers. Teachers went from thinking ‘I don’t know if they should be rewarded’ to ‘How can we reward them for doing the right thing?’ Reinforcing positive social and behavioral skills in the classroom also shifted students’ mindsets. The school shifted to systemic ways of addressing behavior, rather than reacting to individual student behavior. Staff wanted to understand what was really going on for students.

The school places a priority on family and community engagement. Hillcrest maintains partnerships with community impact programs and has a school-based mental health therapist on site. The staff has a high degree of parental involvement in IEP meetings, in part, because of their asset-based approach to their students. “Parents feel like they belong here and that they have a say in things,” Melissa Szejna, school social worker, noted.

The focus on students and families has helped Hillcrest School to decrease suspensions at one of the fastest rates in the state. “There is a general willingness of our counselors, teachers, administration to all work to see a kid’s behavior for what it is, know that it is something that can be worked through, and to get them back to the learning environment.” Paproth said.