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Leadership academy gives at-risk students another chance to succeed

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
October 23, 2007
— Gabby Jass came to school this fall with a lot of attitude.

“I don’t wanna write,” teacher Al Lindau recalls her saying. “I don’t do math.”


Gabby’s classmate, 11th-grader Andrew Moronez, came to school with a past that would give any teacher pause.


Andrew was expelled from Parker High School in 2004 for fighting and repeated failure to obey the rules. He was angry, and he hung with the wrong crowd, he said.


Gabby and Andrew are two of 30 students Janesville School District’s new charter school, TAGOS Leadership Academy.


All TAGOS students are at risk of not achieving their fullest potential, Lindau said.


Lindau, who is dean of the school, has high hopes that TAGOS will turn these students around, giving them the tools not only to function in society but to become leaders.


Whether that vision is realistic is too early to say, but less than two months into the school year, Lindau points to Andrew and Gabby as TAGOS success stories.


That’s saying a lot, considering their history.


Gabby hated classes in which teachers stood and lectured. She had a hard time understanding them.


“Math got confusing, really confusing,” she recalled.


Frustration mounted. She often was absent.


A special program at Franklin Middle School helped, she said, but that ended at the end of eighth grade.


Gabby said a Franklin teacher recommended her for TAGOS.


“I wasn’t very enthused,” she recalled.


But now, instead of listening to lectures, she works on her own projects with a teacher’s guidance. She loves the difference.


“I like working on my own. I like the hands-on things,” she said.


Project-based learning is one of the ways TAGOS is different from regular school. Students take responsibility for their own learning by choosing their own project ideas and working independently.


Students learn their required subjects as they work on projects. Teachers keep track and make sure that the skills developed in the projects add up to the same standards and requirements in regular school, Lindau said. More formal classes and seminars fill in the gaps.


Gabby recently completed a report on teen pregnancy. She interviewed a maternity nurse, visited the district’s School-Aged Parents program and talked to her own mother, who was a teen mom and has always warned her not to make the same mistake.


One thing that’s hard to integrate into a project is math, so TAGOS has a math class.


Gabby said she likes math at TAGOS, however. The course is self-paced. Each student works according to her ability.


Andrew was supposed to be expelled through 2008. He attended the district’s Truancy Abatement and Transitional Education program for parts of two years. Then he was recommended for TAGOS and was accepted.


“I really didn’t expect to enjoy it,” the 16-year-old said. “I just thought it’d be regular education. But it’s a lot better than regular public schools.”


Andrew said he is doing something he never did before, “taking a chance to be a positive role model.”


He seems totally sincere when he says it.


Andrew said he likes that teachers listen to what he has to say, and he likes the personal attention.


“At Parker, they can’t keep track of every student,” Andrew said. “Here, they notice if someone is missing.”


And they’re not missing much.


“No one skips school unless they’re sick,” Andrew said.


Andrew likes the small-group learning. He said it lets him get to know his classmates and to trust them.


“It takes trust before people let other people know about themselves,” he said. “…. I think there’s a lot of trust within this group.”


Andrew is working to produce a movable mural that will promote diversity. Hopes are to get businesses to pay to have the mural displayed in workplaces. Proceeds would pay for future TAGOS projects.


Andrew also is working on a project in human evolution. He seems to embrace learning, Before, he just didn’t care, he said.


“It’s hard work, but it’s something that you like, so you’re willing to put do it,” he said.


Andrew said he has put his past behind him, and he is no trouble now.


“It’s just so much different here, and you don’t have to worry about your friends leading you into bad things,” he added. “…TAGOS is going to be something a lot of kids are going to want to come to. I think it’s going to be good for Janesville.”


HOW IT’S DIFFERENT

The TAGOS Leadership Academy’s philosophy is that every student can become a leader. The school is organized in ways that you won’t find in most “regular” schools:


-- Includes grades 7-12, with the various grade levels often working together.


-- Personal learning plans for each student. Students track their progress in a log or journal.


-- Project-based learning replaces traditional classrooms. All students will have an online portfolio and Web site showcasing TAGOS and their evidence of learning.


-- Students will work in cubicles, much like an office setting, instead of classrooms.


-- Fields trips help students get involved in the community.


Students have toured the General Motors plant, viewed the movie “Sicko” and did an exercise at Rotary Gardens in which they were blindfolded to experience sightlessness.


-- Students and staff assemble in a circle at least once a day to discuss school rules, problems and to discuss experiences such as field trips. Anyone is allowed to speak.


One decision they made was to establish standards that students must meet in order to be allowed to leave school during lunchtime. Staff may veto any idea that doesn’t work for the good of the school.


“These student are tired of have all decisions made for them,” Dean Al Lindau said. “They need autonomy from traditional methods. The big buy-in with our decision-making model is that students are able to design a school that works well for them. You would think that they would abuse the democratic abilities. Quite the opposite. They are sensible in their requests and how they go about solving issues that arise.”


-- Small school and the circle help students feel a member of a group, getting away from the social/emotional conflicts with other students or alienation that some feel in larger schools.


-- “We like to call ourselves a turn-around school, and we talk with students about turning the corner when they experience success or show leadership within the group,” Lindau said.


JANESVILLE CHARTER SCHOOLS

The Janesville School District has expanded its charter school offerings this year. Here’s a list of new, old and future charters:


-- Rock River Charter School, offering a variety of programs for at-risk students, including the alternative school, the e-learning school for students who are short just a few credits for high school graduation, the School-Aged Parents program, or SAPAR, and now a night school to prepare students to take HSED courses.


-- Janesville Academy for International Studies, which offers juniors and seniors from Craig and Parker high schools a chance to spend a portion of their days in project-based learning in foreign languages and international relations and business.


-- TAGOS Leadership Academy, a school for at-risk middle and high school students.


-- Janesville Virtual Academy, which opened in September, allows high school students to get high school diplomas while studying at home with online courses.


-- CRES Academy, set to open in January, will target students who are returning to school after going through drug or alcohol rehabilitation. CRES stands for Community Recovery Education and Service. This “recovery school” would be one of very few like it in the state. Now, students coming out of rehab return to their old schools, where they are exposed to the same people with whom they abused drugs. CRES will be open to students from anywhere in the county.


-- The future: “We don’t have any specific plans, yet, but I’m sure you haven’t seen the last of charter school development in the School District of Janesville,” said Director of Instruction Donna Behn.



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