By LeAnn R. Ralph
ELK MOUND — The Elk Mound Board of Education has honored Judge William C. Stewart Jr. with a Notable Educational Contribution award for his work with the truancy court in Dunn County.
Kyle Jenson, vice president of the Board of Education and acting president at the December 16 meeting, presented the award to Judge Stewart.
Also known as the Starfish Award, the recognition is based on the story of a little boy who finds tens of thousands of starfish on the beach after a storm has washed them ashore and starts throwing them back into the ocean.
When questioned why he is throwing back the starfish when there are obviously so many of them that he will never be able to throw even a fraction of them back into the water, the boy picks up another starfish, throws it in the ocean, and says, “It made a difference to that one!”
“By trying to help individual kids and get them back on the right path, the Starfish Award is very fitting,” Jenson said.
Each month, the Elk Mound Board of Education recognizes a member of the community or a member of the school staff with a Starfish Award.
Judge Stewart retired from his position as a Dunn County circuit court judge at the end of November.
“Judge Stewart has always been excellent in his rapport with the students,” said Paul Weber, principal at Elk Mound High School.
“He always asked the principals for recommendations on that student … (what) I really liked about Judge Stewart is that he wanted to follow up and find out what the kids were doing and if they’d been successful,” he said.
Weber told the school board about two young ladies who had gone through the truancy court and were enrolled in the General Education Diploma program.
Judge Stewart promised them that if they completed the program, he would come to their graduation, he said.
“He was there the night they graduated. He’s a great guy, and we’re going to miss him. He was an advocate for our students and for students in every school district in Dunn County,” Weber said.
“The girls were very appreciative that he showed up and took the time to come and see them. It was a significant day for them. It was a difficult journey to get to that point,” he said.
“We were not successful 100 percent of the time, but a large majority of the time, we were successful in getting kids back into school. Without the help of the court system, a lot of the time, our hands would be tied,” Weber said.
Dr. Ron Walsh, Elk Mound superintendent, was the middle school principal and the high school principal prior to taking on the superintendent position.
“When I was a principal, he was just unbelievable. The things we were able to do in Dunn County for kids that were truant … it’s a tough case load, those are tough kids to deal with,” Dr. Walsh said.
“You’ve set the standard for the state. We have talked to superintendents all over that have a lot of frustration with truancy in their counties. When we talked about what we have in Dunn County, they couldn’t believe it,” he said.
Dunn County’s other circuit court judge, Judge Rod Smeltzer, also was instrumental in starting the county’s truancy court and working with the schools to provide services to students who have issues with truancy.
“I appreciate the honor. What Dunn County has done is truly unique. There is no other county that has their emphasis on doing the truancy court like Dunn County. We started this court in 1998. The reason that it works here is because of you folks,” Judge Stewart said.
Many counties issue tickets to students who are truant, “but it never works because the missing partner is the school. That’s what makes it work. If all you did was ship kids off to Menomonie Monday nights every other week, it wouldn’t work,” he said.
“It’s a true partnership. I commend all of the schools in Dunn County but particularly Elk Mound … the cooperation here has just been phenomenal … We sign orders, but that’s not enough. There has to be support, encouragement and consistency in the school district. That’s why it works,” Judge Stewart said.
The kids who are truant, “are on a different track. The ones that have not been successful over the years, we get to meet them in a different setting. Same courtroom. Different uniform,” he said.
“I commend you folks on the board for allowing and encouraging your administrators to participate. Without that, we could just close up shop and issue tickets and collect money. But that never makes them go to school. It never works,” Judge Stewart said.
“I am truly honored by this (award),” he said.
In other business, the Elk Mound Board of Education:
• Learned that Elk Mound Middle School was awarded the Sunshine Award through WEAU-13, Cyndi Samson nominated the middle school with kind words about the staff and the school, said Eric Wright, middle school principal.
• Approved the proposed calendar for the 2015-2016 school year that includes a spring break from March 21 through March 25. The calendar for 2015-2016 also includes five in-service days at the beginning of the school year, Dr. Walsh noted. Typically the school district has had three in-service days; next year in 2014, there will be four in-service days, he said.