The rural community of Black River Falls, population 3,500, boasts an exceptionally high percentage of alumni who have come back to work in the western Wisconsin school district.
When Ryan Boerger graduated Black River Falls High School in 2016, the last thing on his mind, as with many graduates of small town schools, was coming back to the community he grew up in.
“When I was younger I was set on not returning, because I thought returning to my hometown would consider me to be a failure,” Boerger said.
Fast forward to 2023, and Boerger finds himself excitedly getting ready for students to return to the Black River Falls Middle School where he is a special education teacher in his second year.
“I think I’ve grown and so has the city since I’ve left.”
Returning to Their Roots
While Boerger’s initial path took him to another career after getting a degree in Vocational Rehabilitation at UW-Stout, it’s at his old stomping grounds that he’s feeling energized.
“There are a number of people I went to school with, working for the district. I think the great teachers and services offered here bring us back, hoping to inspire others as we were before!”
For BRF School Superintendent Dr. Shelly Severson, this is music to her ears.
“Every graduation speech I’ve given for the last ten years, I start off by saying ‘I hope you go off and spread your wings, learn new things, and try other communities. But I want to make sure you know you are always welcome here, and we encourage you to come back, and invest in the community that supported you.’”
Welcome Backs are Nostalgic
At a recent all-staff meeting before the start of the school year, Severson asked all alumni to stand. With a look around the room, staff members were astonished.
Sixty-one of the 295 staff in the district were Tigers back in the day.
Severson hopes that’s the mark of a good school.
“It’s a source of pride. They felt they were part of a positive culture and they want to come back and be a part of it.”
Libby Secard is one of those who stood and is seeing the school from an entirely different perspective than what she felt when she graduated in 2006.
“I’m working alongside many teachers I had 20 years ago – they’re my colleagues now, which is still weird at times!” Secard exclaimed. “Some of them will always be ’Mr.’ or ’Mrs.’ to me; the shift to first names is a tough one to conquer! Some of my students are children of my former classmates. Former co-workers of mine from high school jobs are now connections I can lean on when working with students and staff.”
For both Secard, a high school counselor, and Boerger, the general cultural familiarity is certainly advantageous.
“I think it’s beneficial since we know what it’s like to grow up here and have seen the challenges this community faces,” observed Boerger.
Secard and Boerger also both share strong inspiration in one or both parents, who also have a history teaching there.
“It’s like coming home,” noted Secard. “Coming back to BRF wasn’t necessarily something I planned on doing, but it also wasn’t something I intentionally avoided.”
“My mom was the first person I called when I heard about the job opening!”
Boerger said, “Both of my parents were or are great teachers and are a constant influence in my life.”
“They both helped me set my room up the first year. My father works as a coach for new teachers in the middle school, so I still reach out for advice when I need it.”
Retention is Higher
Administrators are well aware that only two-thirds of new teachers still teach in Wisconsin after their first five years. They see hiring alumni as offering a better shot at retention.
“They already know so many of the positives that exist and they help to maximize these things so we can keep growing,” said Severson.
“We all graduated from this district and, for whatever reason, are back. We are choosing to work back in the schools we attended,” said Secard, who will be in her fifth year this fall.
“The district sees these people as more likely to stick around,” Boerger added. “When teacher turnover is high, it can be hard on the kids, and all professional development the school provided to the educator is lost.”
One of those who stuck around is kindergarten teacher Wendy Everson. She returned to her alma mater and has been teaching new generations of students for three decades. In fact, she even taught kindergarten in the same room she was a student in.
“Dr. Richards, the superintendent before, asked me on the day of my interview in 1994, ‘what would be an advantage and a disadvantage of working in my hometown?’” Everson said. “My response to both was that I knew people.”
“I was familiar with their backgrounds, good or not-so-good, but I could also relate on who they were, where they come from, what they did for a living, and could make connections to their families and would be able to find ways to support them and their kids in our schools. This is still true today, 30 years later.”
Everson said her status seems to help parents too.
“Being a ‘hometown girl’ and having longevity in the district helps parents make the transition with their kids into school life a little more comfortably,” Everson said. “I’m happy to be able to help parents make that transition.”
Fourth grade teacher Mary Danielson started as a long-term substitute in 1994 when the teaching market was actually saturated she said. She was hired to teach three years later, and has been teaching in her hometown ever since. “Once a Tiger, always a Tiger!” Danielson said.
Whether teaching a spectrum of students from preschool to seniors or serving in administrative offices, those who’ve returned say it’s fulfilling to be welcomed back to a place that taught so many valuable lessons that they have been able to carry into adulthood.
“I’ve met a lot of amazing educators throughout the years here and I hope I can capture a part of what made them so special to me,” Boerger concluded. “I wasn’t always a good student as I struggled with ADHD and anxiety, and didn’t really know my place in the world. There were staff that believed in me and changed my life for the better.”
“That is the kind of teacher I want to be and I imagine the rest of the alumni were also inspired enough to come back to do the same.”