“I think of myself as a very driven person,” says Natalie Williams. “Once I set my mind to something, I am going to do it. Nothing is going to stop me.”
Williams, born and raised in Milwaukee, tried to pass that tenacity on to her classmates as she spoke at the eighth annual graduation ceremony for Wisconsin Connection Academy, a “virtual school” that serves students in 4k through high school across Wisconsin. Wisconsin Connection Academy is a charter school of the Appleton Area School District. Williams was the top student of the 2019 graduating class of more than 60 and served as president of the school’s chapter of the National Honor Society.
“I was basically trying to tell them that whatever they put their minds to, they could do it,” Williams says. “Nothing’s going to stop you if you work hard for it.”
The ceremony, held at UW-Fox Valley, was the most-attended since the school expanded to include high school in 2011.
Walker was homeschooled in kindergarten, then attended traditional schools in Milwaukee through eighth grade. But then another family member gave Connections Academy a try.
“My cousin started there first, but he was in elementary,” she says. “My mom, she was like, oh, it’s pretty cool how the way it works. It’s just basically like a public school, but just online. You could still go on field trips, you could still meet other students. But you don’t have to actually go out to a public school building early in the morning. But I mean, of course you have to start on time, get things done.”
Williams says the school worked well for her because she’s driven but shy.
“I’m kind of a shy person, so I mean, being around so many people at once is kind of hard,” she says. “Having a closer relationship with your teacher, that was better for me, instead of just being another student in the classroom.”
She also wants to make clear that going to virtual school doesn’t mean you’re on your own.
“There’s always something going on with Connections,” she says. “There’ll be field trips and all you have to do is just email the secretary, and she’ll just sign you up for the field trip and you just show up and you meet with other students and teachers and have a good time.”
Student involvement was important, too.
“As a member of NHS I had to complete service hours and I did that by volunteering at my former middle school and did fundraisers once a year for the Leukaemia and Lymphoma Society by hosting a bake sale,” Williams says.
Founded in 2000, Wisconsin Connections Academy had 548 students enrolled from 4k through high school in the 2018-19 school year, according to state records. The enrollment is 80 percent white, with Latinx and Black enrollment at 6.4 and 4.4 percent, respectively.