Janesville's TAGOS focuses on project-based learning

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Monday, May 8, 2017

To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.

-- From Shakespeare's “Hamlet”

JANESVILLE—“Hamlet” is Willow Buckner's favorite of all Shakespeare's plays.

The 17-year-old loves the richness of the Bard's language, the way his words invoke vivid images and how the things he wrote still matter today.

In some ways, it was Shakespeare who brought Willow to TAGOS Leadership Academy.

As a freshman at Parker High School, she wasn't allowed to take any advanced placement or honors courses.

When her class was working through “Romeo and Juliet,” she already had the play memorized.

Willow wanted to do more, to hurl herself headlong into literature's depths. She wanted to think not just out of the box but to throw out the box completely.

Her teacher at Parker recognized in her a passionate soul and recommended TAGOS.

TAGOS stands for Tailoring Academics to Guide Our Students.

Teachers try to connect with students' interests in nontraditional ways.

More specifically, it's project-based learning.

For example, if a student is a skateboarder, he or she might end up doing a project about the physics of the sport. Angles, trajectory, rate of acceleration, propulsion, lift and possibly even the amount of time it takes an ambulance traveling at variable speeds to reach the hospital.

“Students have a choice and a voice in what they're learning,” said Stephanie Davis, English teacher, advisor and dean of students at the school.

Reading, writing and math are part of every project. Often scientific method comes into play, as well.

For adults educated in desks arranged in rows or, if they were lucky, circles, project-based learning is difficult to understand.

How do students get all the math they need?

What about the classic novels?

For math, students use ALEKS, a McGraw Hill course that allows students to progress at their own pace.

On a recent day, a reading group was working its way through “Fahrenheit 451.”

Each day includes about 70 minutes of math and periods devoted to writing and reading.

Time is set aside each day for work on projects or “seminars.”

Many of the students are also participating in weekly, half-day internships.

When students graduate, they go on to jobs, colleges and tech schools.

“What we've found is that students are taking a year off and then are coming back to ask about transcripts,” Davis said.

Every school day starts with “morning advisory” where students meet to discuss different issues and upcoming events.

It's part of building a community.

I dote on his very absense.

-- From Shakespeare's “The Merchant of Venice.”

Some TAGOS students fall into the gifted and talented category, but were too smart, too bored or just didn't fit in at traditional high school.

“We've got a lot of quirky kids,” Davis said, sounding pleased.

The school also serves students who struggle with depression and anxiety, and the drama, noise and anonymity of a large school was too much.

In some circumstances, the school will accept students who have been expelled. However, each of those students has to be approved by the superintendent.

One of TAGOS' challenges is helping students who have been habitually truant.

“We have students that have been nonattenders,” Davis said. “It takes some time to get them back into the habit of going to school.”

Students might have been bullied for being different, or they might have had complicated family problems that made regular attendance a challenge.

Or, more simply, they didn't like school.

The truancy rate hurt TAGOS on the state report cards. The school received a score of 43.3 out of 100, earning it a label of “fails to meet expectations.”

“Unfortunately, when you're small, and you have one or two students that are truant, it really throws things off,” Davis said.

That goes for test scores and graduation rates, too. For example, this year the school has a graduating class of 12. If one of those students doesn't graduate, it will have a disproportionate impact on the state's school report cards, Davis said.

Yet a few years ago, TAGOS received a School of Promise award.

Every day, staff work on the truancy issue.

“Unlearning poor habits takes time and nurturing support,” Davis wrote in an email.

Davis and Val Maxon, the school's administrative assistant, call or text students in the morning to get them moving. If a student doesn't show up for a day or two, Davis might visit them at home.

Students will sometimes call their classmates to see where they are.

“When students don't come in, I call and say, 'We missed you today,'” she said. “Kids need to know we care about them whether they're here or not.”

One of the benefits of project-based learning is students can “pick up right where they left off,” Davis said.

Won't all that handholding be bad for kids?

One of the school's goals is to teach students to work independently and rid them of the habits holding them back.

Small, obtainable goals are the start of new behavior patterns.

“Working independently is something students have to learn,” Davis said. “We guide them pretty heavily, but they have to learn how to manage their own time. They really have to work at it. “

“We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”

-- From Shakespeare's "Hamlet"

This year, TAGOS has added internships to its educational lineup:

-- Three students are interning at SSI in a pre-apprenticeship program.

-- Three are at Riverfront for politics, policy or communications internships.

-- Another is working at the Janesville Performing Arts Center as an arts administration intern.

Those internships are part of a district-wide drive to get kids thinking about work and careers.

As for Buckner, she's thinking about culinary arts school. 

She's happy at TAGOS because it  allows her to be herself and challenges her to do more. But the school isn't for everyone, she said.

“You've got to have a creative spark to come here,” she said. “You can't just follow the crowd and make it.”

Teachers have seen all the ordinary projects, and expect something more, she said.

Charter schools still carry stigmas, Buckner warned. If you attend TAGOS, people might assume you've been expelled or been in trouble with the law or “there's something wrong with you.”

But those assumptions become irrelevant when you realized you've found a place to pursue your passions.

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