By Sheila Sherwin – YIHS Director of Development

What makes Youth Initiative High School different? Is it that we are one of only 40 Waldorf High Schools in the country? That we were the first high school in the United States to be designated as an Ashoka-Changemaker School? Is it that our 7 year old boarding program has attracted students from 18 countries and 5 continents? That our students are deeply connected to the earth that supports them through the science curriculum, the agriculture classes, and the annual week-long expeditions? Or is it that we offer a curriculum that considers the core values of Leadership, Creativity, Reverence, and Service in every aspect of our work? These, and so many other things make Youth Initiative stand out, but what makes YIHS truly different can be found in its name: Youth Initiative.

Since moving to Viroqua in 2001, I have watched YIHS grow and change –first from the remove of Pleasant Ridge Waldorf School across the way, and later, as a parent and occasional teacher, while my son Will was a student here from 2012-2016. After Will graduated however, I found that I could never fully divest myself from the creative energy of the school. The longer I have been invested in YIHS, and the closer I have gotten, the more certain I am that this place is special —that despite the messiness that can sometimes come with small, experimental, and highly democratic processes, YIHS is profoundly changing the lives of young people. I can see it as I walk down the hallways and the wisps of heated discussions filter out of the classrooms; when I look at the outstanding artwork that routinely graces our hallways; when I hear song or chamber music radiating throughout the school; and when I smell aromatic tendrils emerging from of one of Jane Siemon’s Nutrition classes. But how can we know that such a non-traditional curriculum —grounded in the maxims of self-governance and a healthy balance between head, heart and hands— is giving our students what they need to succeed in life outside of this educational refuge? With this question in mind, I reached out to a handful of graduates and asked them to tell us about their journeys —to describe what they are doing now and how their time at Youth Initiative has influenced their paths.

The narratives that came back assured me that Youth Initiative graduates are thriving. Each one helps illustrate an arc of development and what is possible when teenagers are given the trust, freedom, and support needed to grow into adults who have confidence, creativity, and curiosity as they move into a world beyond high school. They underscore what I could already see and feel throughout the hallways of the Landmark building: A Youth Initiative education creates lasting imprints, and provides developing adults with the right balance of agency, responsibility, intellectual challenge, and love. This marriage of values is largely the product of the dexterous and highly committed YIHS teachers, who guide their students through a fine balance of form and freedom —a dance that allows for their students to grow into confident adults who feel accepted and capable of taking risks as they step out into the broader world. At the end of the day, what more could any of us want for our children? As graduate Tegan Wendland so movingly writes in her reflection:

“I find the hardest part of being a YIHS graduate is that not everyone else is.”

That said, it’s important to remember that these conclusions are the educational equivalent of “slow food.” They are forged one moment and one student at a time: When young people are pushed to question their certainties and given the freedom to explore a wide range of academic disciplines; when a teacher recognizes the leadership potential of a student who does not seek the limelight and asks them to step into the possible; when students forage for food and cook meals, when they stich, sculpt, paint and create together, when they sleep outdoors in the Wisconsin winters, and when they negotiate the challenges and complexities of running a school, their school, at student meetings. Over time, each of these moments coalesce to give young minds the skills and qualities required for a rewarding adult life.

When any of us reflect on the most meaningful moments in our lives, they trend towards the slow, the intentional, the shared. And this is where YIHS shines. Day in and day out, students and teachers are allowing space needed for intellectual and personal adulthood to emerge, to unfold, to be discovered in the safety of a close knit community.

Today, with over 200 alumni, the impressions and themes of a YIHS education are tangible. . We have alumni leading social justice work in DC, alumni reporting and editing for National Public Radio, alumni starting a new college. YIHS alumni are changing the world. And they are changing their own lives too. But in order to keep this work going, YIHS needs support in many forms. There are many ways to contribute, including but not limited to:

We hope that you will consider supporting this slow, intentional work so that YIHS can continue to send thoughtful, courageous and curious young people out into the world.

In closing, I send out a big thank-you to all the writers and other helpers who, despite busy lives, took the time to contribute these thoughtful essays, and hope that more of you will feel inspired to follow suit and share your own YIHS experiences with us. For the full slate of reflections, please check out our Alumni newsletter “The Landmark” or our Instagram and Facebook page.


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