“Riverside saved my life,” says Nick Panke Fenrich, who was 17 when he was arrested for burglary. He and a few younger friends decided to take items from the garage of someone they knew. “Everything about it was stupid,” he says with regret.
One of the calls he made from jail was to Lisa Lieder, alternative education coordinator for the Oshkosh Area School District. Lieder and a team from the district and Fox Valley Technical College (FVTC) operate the Riverside Alternative Education Program.
Photo caption: Richard Rassmussen, resident of ShareHaven, a residential unit within the Evergreen Retirement Community, talks with Nick Panke Fenrich. Fenrich was certified as a CNA while completing requirements to graduate high school as a part of the Riverside Alternative Education Program in Oshkosh.
“I called Mrs. Lieder from jail and said ‘I really need to stay in this program and I already messed up’,” says Fenrich, a new father who will turn 20 in a few months.
A few days later, he had a heart-to-heart conversation with Lieder and his teacher, Susan McDermott.
“He understood that there were connections that he could make, that he could nurture and change the trajectory of his life,” says McDermott. “We don’t always get to see the light come on for students, but I believe that happened for Nick when he was in our program.”
Riverside is an alternative course of study for high school students who are at-risk of not completing school.
Started more than five years ago, the program has supported 217 individual students of which 133 successfully completed high school. Seventy-five of those graduates have continued their education at FVTC, and 25 have completed a full-degree postsecondary program.
“(NICK IS) SUCH A KIND SPIRIT. HE’S A PERFECT EXAMPLE OF THE SAYING ‘YOU CAN’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER.’ – Mary Stelter, manager of ShareHaven
Riverside is funded in part through multiyear grants from the Basic Needs Giving Partnership, a collaboration between the U.S. Venture Fund for Basic Needs, the J. J. Keller Foundation, and the community foundation. The program derives its success, Lieder says, through one-on-one instruction and counseling, and self-paced study.
Those two factors were critical to Fenrich’s success, he says. Thanks to the program, he donned a cap and gown with his classmates for graduation at Oshkosh North High School in June 2014.
Many of the students, Leider says, have a lot in common, such as poverty, mental health issues, being teenage parents, drug or alcohol abuse or being from dysfunctional homes. The one-on-one, self-paced instruction model helps at-risk students be successful.
“When we get them in a different setting, it’s a whole new ball game,” says Leider. “Our incredible team builds relationships with students that helps them believe in themselves and that create opportunities that they otherwise may not have.”
Fenrich, who has struggled with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder, says the teachers at Riverside have a way of getting through to troubled students. He’s encouraged several classmates to complete the program, too.
“They’re just very good with troubled youth and very good at understanding us. Susan (McDermott) makes it seems like she was right there with you in hard times, and has a way of showing you that you can thrive through that,” Fenrich says.
While at Riverside, he became a Certified Nursing Assistant and now works at ShareHaven, a residential unit within the Evergreen Retirement Community, while he attends classes to become a mechanic. He plans to operate his own garage for imported cars when he completes his education.
“Riverside has helped me in so many ways. They do so much more than just school.”
Support programs like Riverside Alternative Education Program with a gift to
U.S. Venture Fund for Basic Needs