Ryan Jackson sits as tall in the La Follette High School Library while sharing his curriculum vitae as he does participating in the classroom. With good reason. Ryan, a La Follette senior, carries a seriously impressive list of extracurricular activities for a student maintaining a 3.7 GPA. This young man has earned a four-year, free-ride to UW-Madison, and he is rightfully proud of the hard work that got him there.
Ryan, a polished teen with a humble manner, occasionally breaks into a genuine smile that exposes the pride he has in his academic performance. But a stellar academic standing wasn’t always the case.
“At Sennett Middle School I saw school as an obstacle, not a tool for me to get farther in my life than if I didn’t attend school.” says Ryan. I would just as soon hang out with friends than worry about grades. If I got a C, I was good, then I could keep playing sports.”
Then Ryan joined AVID in eighth grade, and that all changed.
“I started to see a significant increase in my grades through the second semester of that year because AVID kept me accountable for my actions and my grades,” says Ryan. “They had grade checks and we could see if we had missing work. If we needed to, we could go back to the teacher to see how we could fix the grade. That was the first time I felt responsible for fixing my own grade.”
By the end of eighth grade, Ryan had cultivated a sense of community with his AVID classmates who he calls “like-minded” and “kids who helped me stay on track.” Because achievement was part of the AVID classroom culture, Ryan began to make the connection between academic success and life success.
That epiphany, and oversight by Sennett Language arts teacher Amber Hanrahan, who Ryan says was passionate about helping him and holding him accountable for his grades, made all the difference. Ms. Hanrahan's class made Ryan feel that if he did well in school, he could go places.
But in the end, it was Ryan who did the work. Ms. Hanrahan remembers him not only as “a dedicated student,” but also a kind young man. “Ryan is extremely thoughtful and gracious,” she says. “He was a real joy to have in the classroom.”
When Ryan arrived at La Follette his freshman year, he was primed to hit the books hard. Eager to expand his experiences, he joined clubs over the next four years that complemented his interests and provided volunteer opportunities – clubs like the Black Student Union (BSU) and Kiwanis Educating Youth International student-led organization (KEY Club). Plus he played soccer for two years.
In his Junior year he quit soccer to widen his academic reach. That year he was accepted into National Honor Society (NHS), and this school year he was selected to go on the Multicultural Student Achievement Network (MSAN) Student Conference, held in Boston last October. This conference brings students from across the country for three days of listening to and learning from panelists, speakers and activists. Afterward, they are asked to put their own critical thinking skills to the test and problem solve around issues that affect them in their districts.
“At the end of the presentations we would get together with other kids from our school district and talk about ways we could improve our own district’s multiculturalism. Our plan was to make corrections to the behavior education plan so it would not misrepresent students of color, a very big task.”
The opportunity, however, that was truly transformational for Ryan, was being accepted his freshman year into the Information Technology Academy (ITA), a UW Madison-based curriculum designed to develop leadership skills and increase student diversity on the UW Madison campus. Students like Ryan who fulfill a rigorous four-year commitment to learning and leadership opportunities, who then apply to and are accepted into UW-Madison, are awarded a “People Scholarship” that pays their full 4-year tuition.
This scholarship was well deserved. For the past four years Ryan has met other ITA students twice a month on campus to participate in technology-integrated courses that foster confidence, skills and life success. In summer months students attend a summer camp designed specifically for each grade level. Last summer Ryan’s ITA “summer senior residential experience” took him to Sellery Hall for a week alongside students from Madison, Lac Du Flambeau and Oneida Reservations – the ITA targeted communities.
“It was very fun,” says Ryan with another authentic smile. “We had this big get-together to get to know students from up north, and clubs and fraternities came and had presentations to get us ready for dorm life next year.”
Ryan is not the only person smiling in his story. As an only child, he is poised to be a first generation college graduate, and that, along with Ryan’s overall behavior and choices, has made both of his parents understandably happy.
“Ryan just makes us smile,” says his mother, Joan Jackson, a systems analyst for Alliant Energy. “He is a very kind, caring, hard-working, self-motivated person. He is always willing to lend a hand around the house with anything that needs to be done, but he is also willing to help neighbors when they need a hand, too.”
Ms. Jackson also points out that even with Ryan’s academic demands, he did a senior summer ITA internship at American Family Insurance while holding down two others jobs – back waiter for the Elks Lodge events and bike mechanic at Dream Bikes, a non profit that refurbishes second hand bikes to give low to moderate income teens paid job training while putting recycled bikes back into the community.
“He has two jobs to help save up for college expenses but he still finds time to volunteer for various organizations around Madison, all while keeping up with his homework and maintaining a great GPA. We just could not ask for a better son.”
As Ryan packs up to leave the library, the conversation turns to the upcoming weekend that starts with a district-wide, no-school Friday. “Oh, I’ll be here Friday morning sometime before six (a.m).,” he says. “I’m helping make a pancake breakfast for teachers with the National Honor Society.”
Case in point.
- Pat Dillon