Finding the Good: Spotlight on ACTIONS and Novak Academy

In the comments of the previous post, there was an unspoken but implicit challenge to find the good in the things around us. So I am kicking off a series of blog posts. They will be scattered as I find good examples to highlight. I am calling the series “Finding the Good”, and I fully believe it is not hard to find as long as we have open eyes and minds.


Today I am shining the spotlight on ACTIONS and the Novak Academy. I had an opportunity to visit both of these amazing places last week, and I extend my warm thanks to both Katie Ahsell of ACTIONS and Tony Maltbia of Novak Academy for making the time and opening the doors. Both initiatives are completely different, but they do share some similarities in that they offer alternative support for students who need that little something “more” than what the normal classroom offers.



The Alternative Center for Targeted Instruction and ONgoing Support (website) actually serves the district in two distinct ways. The first is more obvious, taking in kids who are in some kind of suspension. The second floor of the Family Information Center (FIC) is reserved for a couple classrooms, which typically are split up between the older kids and the younger kids. But it changes all the time, as you never know who is going to show up. The other function provided by ACTIONS is more of an outreach program, whereby ACTIONS staff go out to other schools to offer support in classrooms, to provide adhoc on-site training or just to actively observe.

There is a lot that I really like about the underlying framework at ACTIONS. One piece is a weighty phrase that needs a little explaining, restorative justice. To borrow from Howard Zehr, “Crime is a wound. Justice should be healing.” My understanding of restorative justice (RJ) is that is seeks to mend what was broken contrasted with a penal system that segregates broken parties into victims and offenders, creating two separate and opposed societies. Since I am a big fan of couching life around the significance of relationships (which can be messy, hard, time-consuming and definitely NOT efficient), I personally see a lot of value in a RJ type of philosophy which also prioritizes relationships.

Another aspect of ACTIONS that tickled me pink is that there is an infusion of (in my opinion) critical social skills; conflict resolution, identifying and expressing feelings, and seeing from another point of view, just to name a few. Ironically, at one point I told Ms. Ahsell that I wish my daughter could go to a school like this. *grin* I hold that the purpose of education is to equip people to succeed at life, and I really like how MLK Jr. stated that schools are to prepare students to function in society. I cannot see that happening without the development of such social skills.

The last characteristic of ACTIONS I wish to bring forward is that of the focus on what they call “parent empowerment”. This is a six-week afterschool series that focuses on family bonding and building trust between student, parents, teachers and staff. Based on anonymized comments I read from participants, it seems to be a big hit. Parents also learn about advocating for their child, in addition to forming a team relationship with the teachers. I wonder what would happen if thousands of families had this opportunity….

I was exceptionally impressed with the dynamic nature of the work carried out at ACTIONS; this is certainly not for the faint of heart. Imagine going to work and not knowing if you were going to spend time with a 7-year-old or 17-year old who started a fight, or traveling to a school for the day.

As we were observing one classroom, the staff person displayed a video of a fight and facilitated a very candid discussion that honored honest, concluding with a reminder that even the students in the video who were standing around, laughing, or recording with their iPhones, were complicit as well, for they did not fulfil their moral obligation to step in and stop the fight. This is the essence of the anti-bullying message, I believe; standing up for what is right does not imply passivity in the face oppression.


Novak Academy

The Novak Academy (website) is just down the street from the FIC. Mr. Maltbia makes it clear that even though Novak Academy is an alternative setting for learning, it by no means is easy in any sense of the word; every day at Novak is like two days in “regular” school.

The heightened pace is due in part to the Apex Online learning environment, a classroom packed with computers, students and one facilitator. The other factor is well-trained staff in smaller classrooms. And by smaller classrooms, some felt almost as cramped as a closet. 🙂 It is my understanding that this approach allows the staff to offer an environment that is highly responsive to different styles of learning; one classroom was very hands-on, another was lecture-based supplemented with video, while Apex allows a kind of “go as fast as you can” opportunity.

One of the ramifications of the warp speed velocity is that attendance becomes much more significant, which is reflected in the consequences and occasional rewards. Students actually sign an attendance commitment, and if I recall correctly, missing a few days could get you dropped from the program (I need to look up the specifics when I find the brochure…..).

Mr. Maltbia also laid out some plans they have to utilize more of a project-based learning approach. Their ideas are still in draft form, yet I found them exciting none-the-less purely because I am a big fan of PBL. It will be interesting to see PBL mature at Novak Academy.

One of the things I loved about my visit is an emphasis on understanding the child, trying to figure out what works best for each student; one child may be quiet, another loud, do they both need the same thing?


Wrapping up

After visiting ACTIONS and Novak Academy, I had a visit with Dr. Wiegand. I offered praise for these wonderful programs, and thought it was a shame that too few people know about them. So that planted the seed for this article, the discussion on the previous post fertilized that seed.

I will point out that both have been covered in the News-Gazette; Meg Dickinson wrote about ACTIONS in August 2013, and Jodi Heckel covered what was then the Academic Academy in 2008 and 2009.


Where have you found good?


11 Responses to “Finding the Good: Spotlight on ACTIONS and Novak Academy”

  1. pattsi Says:

    It would be so useful for your blog readers to better understand these programs as compared to what is offered at the Youth Assessment Center and Parents with Loving Limits. Based on your descriptions, I am wondering if there are over laps, duplications? And what about the program offered for suspended students held, I think, at the Transportation Center?

    • charlesdschultz Says:

      I am not familiar with any of those programs.

    • Kathy R. Says:

      I know the program Pattsi mentioned at the Illinois Terminal building is a regional program, R.E.A.D.Y. (website which does sound similar to ACTIONS. I suspect their plates are each pretty full; I wonder how they differ or if they ever collaborate?

      Thanks for shining light on the good, Charles. Great idea for a regular series. Public education can use more cheerleaders, to inspire all of us to do better.

  2. pattsi Says:

    Charles, thanks for making my point. i have known now for over three years as the county started working on the community justice issue that there are many siloed programs that overlap causing the lack of fiduciary efficiency of the taxpayer dollars. Everyone is turf protecting. And now the Access Initiative is morphing to Community Coalition which is one more layer with no product. The cost for this is over $300,000. More of the surface for these programs needs to be scratched–what are these programs costing the taxpayer and how many are being serviced. And you of anyone who is data oriented what are the metric measurements?

    • charlesdschultz Says:

      Just FYI, Katie Ahsell did mention that she had talked with (and worked with?) members of the Community Coalition, including Sara Balgoyen of the Illinois Balanced and Restorative Justice Project (IBARJ).

      I remember hearing on several occasions at board meetings where student number xxxxxx has been suspended and assigned to READY. But I need to learn more about the program.

  3. Rebecca Patterson Says:

    Is the READY program being defunded? I heard last fall the Regional office was going to cut their funding, and there was another story about the MTD worried about losing them as a tenant. Just moving or closing?

    • charlesdschultz Says:

      After some traded emails and a phone call to the READY office, I learned that READY is NOT closing down. The administrative assistant was not able to comment on anything else.

      Based on what little I have learned so far, it seems like an excellent program. I hope to drop by sometime to see first-hand what it is like. For those interested, here is the READY website:

      • charlesdschultz Says:


        I heard back from the Regional Superintendent Jane Quinlan; apparently, READY is set to loose $91,325 in grant money due to Rauner’s budget modifications; the staff at the READY program have calculated that this will cover about four classrooms, in which case they would be forced to stop offering services for middle school. Ms. Quinlan has urged voters to contact legislators in an effort to get this funding replaced at the General Assembly and put back in front of the Governor.

  4. pattsi Says:

    What entity funds this program, what is the annual cost, how long has the program existed, how many have been enrolled, and how many have completed the program?

    • charlesdschultz Says:

      Pattsi, as you sit on the ROE Joint Committee and the ROE runs the program, you probably have more access to answers for those questions than the rest of us. 🙂 I look forward to hearing what you find out. *grin*

  5. #EdCampCU, PBF, and the Achievement Framework | Citizen4: A citizen's blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] am a big fan of PBF and have written about it before. During my visit to ACTIONS, I was very much impressed by the focus on restorative justice and the way staff gave both respect […]

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