JANESVILLE—This story is about a standout senior and his standout mom.
First, the mom: About six years ago, standout mom Amber Kennedy was on the internet in the middle of the night, looking for something to save her son, Jaz, emotionally and academically.
School was making him sick. He was easily bored and failed to pay attention. Then he got behind in his work, and his stress level became uncontrollable.
At about 2 a.m. one morning, Amber found TAGOS Leadership Academy, the Janesville School District charter school dedicated to project-based learning.
She believed she had a solution. So Amber and Jaz packed everything they needed into her Mini Cooper and left Watertown, South Dakota, for Janesville.
Now for the standout son.
Teachers at TAGOS this year picked Jaz as their standout senior for a variety of reasons.
TAGOS Dean of Students Stephanie Davis asked staffers for their thoughts on Jaz. Here is a partial list of their descriptions: an out-of-the-box thinker, a higher-level and deep-thinker, has no problems politely challenging authority when he is passionate about something, wants to be challenged, comfortable talking about any topic he researches from string theory to world history, highly motivated and an old soul.
How can this be a child who once was sickened by school?
“It was more than just school; there was more personal stuff I don't want to talk about,” Amber said.
But it was school that drove the move.
Jaz wanted to do well, but without a challenge, he became listless and stopped paying attention. The combination of personal and academic challenges was making him sick.
What does he like about TAGOS?
“It's so individually driven here,” he said. “I can work at my own pace, and that's really important.”
The academic design allowed him to go into depth on a topic of his choice. He's famous for his long presentations. His history presentation on World War II was—wait for it—14 hours long.
“I'm kinda known for doing really long presentations, but I think that one crossed the line,” he said.
Davis said students loved his presentations because they were so engaging.
Jaz has a knack for seeing how a topic crosses into different subject areas. War isn't just a series of dates, and it doesn't pop up in a vacuum. It's about politics, culture, history and science.
“It took me about four hours to cover the world leading up to the war,” Jaz said. “I wanted to do the whole war, but when that part took four hours, I decided just to do the Western Front.”
Just the Western Front?
TAGOS allowed Jaz to pursue his passions, but it also taught him discipline.
He acknowledged that he needed it.
Jaz's first adviser, Jon Woloshin, showed him how to work in a more focused fashion.
“He was really good at sitting down with me when I needed it and knowing when to give me space,” Jaz said.
Students are allowed to work at their own pace, but they shouldn't fall behind in their studies. Part of that motivation comes from teachers, but most of it needs to come from the students themselves.
Jaz will attend the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and plans to major in mechanical engineering.
How will he manage a traditional classroom setting?
“I've already started transitioning back into that,” he said. “I'm taking chemistry and Chinese II at Parker High School.”
When faced with a task or homework he doesn't want to do, he has developed ways to spark his own interest.
Other times, it's just a matter of sitting down and getting it done, he said.
Jaz recognizes the sacrifices his mother made to move to Janesville. He doesn't talk about it a lot, but you can tell he understands and appreciates it.
It comes out when he reveals a detail about their lives.
Their home in Watertown, South Dakota, had to be rented to someone else. It was a place they had done a lot of work on and really loved.
When they left, they stored some things with relatives and got rid of a lot of stuff, Jaz said.
“My mom got rid of, like, 400 books,” he said. “I know that was hard for her.”