In the beginning of her sophomore year at Elk Mound High School, Kayla Hefti was assaulted by a male student. The police were involved and the boy had to write her a letter of apology, but Kayla found it painfully hard to encounter him in the halls on a daily basis.
Feeling nauseous and sick nearly all the time, Kayla started missing school one or two days a week. Her mother brought her concerns about Kayla to Shanna McMullin, alternative education and at-risk coordinator of SCORE — Student Credit Options and Resource Education.
“Her mom came to us just frustrated because [Kayla] was very emotional and a wreck and in a really bad relationship and had some bad influences around her,” McMullin explained. “Her mom said she wouldn’t talk to anybody, wouldn’t get counseling ... telling me it basically was hopeless.”
Without divulging details, McMullin said that given the place from which Kayla began, not graduating from high school was a distinct possibility.
“She’s naturally smart, so her grades never suffered too much,” McMullin said, “But overall I think she was going in a direction that everybody was worried about.”
Kayla confirms that she was having a rough time with relationships.
“I didn’t want to go to school,” she admitted. “I was arguing with my dad and my stepmom. It was hard on my stepsiblings and my mom — it was hard on the whole family.”
Embracing the program, she worked hard and graduated from SCORE by the end of her sophomore year. In May, she’ll collect her diploma, marking her transition from being an at-risk high school student to becoming a scholar at University of Wisconsin-Stout.
She’ll also be attending a reception at UW-Eau Claire’s Davies Center after being named the Chippewa Valley Newspapers’ Extra Effort winner from Elk Mound High School.
Changing the program
The ability to talk about her issues gave Kayla motivation to change.
“I learned if I can’t change it, why worry about it so much?”
McMullin taught her how to deal with problems, she said. “I learned not to care what other people think, but to talk to someone about problems. Now it is easier to deal with my mom and brother. It helps us a lot to understand each other better.”
After graduating from SCORE, Kayla began getting As and Bs, she got her driver’s license and started a job in Eau Claire.
McMullin noted that Kayla has become a tutor and mentor to at-risk students and been a leader in school events like a community clean-up, homeless overnight events, and a Starving Artist Dinner.
“A lot of the kids have gone through stuff like I have,” Kayla said. “I know what they are going through. It has been a lot of fun working with [McMullin] and the kids, and watching them grow.”
Kayla’s goal is to earn a college degree in special education, a decision that was strengthened by her experience in working with kids.
“I’ve always wanted to work with younger kids,” she said. “Last year, I worked in elementary with a kid. I found it a lot of fun.”
Kayla said she’s also interested in possibly following in McMullin’s footsteps.
“Service has become very important to her,” McMullin said.
“Kayla has come a long way over four years,” said Elk Mound High Principal Paul Weber. “She has really matured and become a leader in her peer group.”
Weber noted that about half the students in his high school come from blended households, with stepparents and stepsiblings.
For the students who face issues with relationships, he said, “it can be very difficult. I see kids struggle with that.”
He acknowledged that SCORE provided Kayla a chance to excel.
“It really grounded her, and gave her a place to deal with relationships and get academic support at the same time,” Weber said, explaining that students can spend up to half a day in the program and the rest of the time in their regular classrooms.
McMullin emphasized how much she’ll miss Kayla: “I don’t know what I am going to do next year when she graduates. She can basically run my program.”
“I’ve worked really hard since freshman year to get to where I am,” Kayla said. “I try harder now. I care more.”