PAA

Portage Academy of Achievement students exchange high-fives at a rally Tuesday at Rusch Elementary, where the program is housed. The students will graduate today in a ceremony at Portage High School.

NOAH VERNAU/Daily Register

Jayson Zick will be one of 18 Portage Academy of Achievement graduates to take a brief walk on stage to receive his high school diploma tonight in the Portage High School auditorium.

Two years ago, that wasn’t a path he envisioned taking.

“I wasn’t very good at the regular high school,” he said Tuesday, a few moments after trying on his cap and gown for a rally at Rusch Elementary, where the program is housed. Zick came to PAA in March of his sophomore year, working 40 hours a week at Heinze Farms in Portage while attending school.

“I worked a lot,” Zick said of his life before — and after — PAA, “so I wasn’t always at school during harvest season, and I took off sometimes, but then this program allowed me to work, and work at my own pace.

“(At PAA) it was: ‘you’re going to be here as long as you’re here. And if you want to work at it, and really go for it, you can go for it.’ I really liked that, and that really kind of kicked me into gear.”

Zick is now enrolled in University of Wisconsin-Madison’s two-year Farm and Industry Short Course program, which he’ll begin in October.

He hopes to eventually start his own farm.

“I want to get to be more knowledgeable (about farming),” Zick said, “maybe get a job as an artificial inseminator, but just something in the agriculture business; I think that’d be the perfect thing for me.”

‘They step up’

Working 40 hours while attending school is never easy, PAA teachers Joe Pease and Karen Meierdirk said. Hector Garcia is another graduate who worked 40 hours a week while attending school, to support his girlfriend and child, beginning at Blue Beacon Truck Wash and now working at Dawn’s Foods.

“I just have so much respect for (Zick and Garcia) because it’s a hard road, and they did it without complaining,” Meierdirk said. “We’ve had some kids who whine and complain, but they continue to do the right thing. They step up to the plate all the time.”

PAA this year also had five “Super Seniors,” students who took longer than four years to graduate high school but who kept after it and never gave up, Pease said. “They might be in here a little longer, but that doesn’t matter here. That’s just how our program works.”

Some students, like Zick and Garcia, officially graduated before Wednesday’s ceremony. Garcia graduated in January, while Zick graduated in April — another factor in what makes PAA so valuable to students, Pease said.

“You go until you’re finished,” Pease said. “We had five students in their fifth year, and nobody dropped out. That’s an important piece for our school, especially for our district.”

“The high school just didn’t work for them — and the high school just doesn’t work for some people (in general),” Meierdirk said. “It can be personal problems, things that happen at home; certain kids just really don’t like school, but you need that diploma to move on.

“The shortened day is nice, and when kids finish their credits, they’re done. You don’t have to sit here until you graduate.”

Zick, for example, was able to work on the farm before his school started at 8:30 a.m., and then worked again when his schooling was finished at 11:30 a.m.

Many of PAA’s other graduates are interested in going to college, some of them enrolled in Madison College or Black Hawk Technical College in Janesville, for example, Pease said. Almost all of the graduates are still working, since in order to attend PAA you need to work 20 hours a week.

Alternative, not charter

PAA was a charter school for 16 years, but changed recently to an alternative high school, Pease said. This was done in order to ensure the students PAA serves come from Portage, since a charter school is required to accept students from other districts in the area.

“We really wanted to service the students in our community,” Pease said, noting the school is capped at 28 students at one time, due to its small classroom size. One of the things that makes PAA so effective, Pease noted, is its teacher-to-student ratio, with both Meierdirk and Pease afforded plenty of time to work one-on-one with students.

Had PAA remained a charter school, its student interview process for enrollment would have gone “out the window,” Pease said. The program prides itself in holding these interviews, which tend to produce investment in the program for students, once accepted. Generally, the school accepts only sophomores to seniors, another piece that would have been lost if PAA remained a charter school.

“So our main goal,” Pease said, “is to provide those students at Portage High School an opportunity to graduate that they might not have had if they stayed there.”

“They come here for a variety of different reasons,” Meierdirk said, “mostly for attendance or behavior issues, but those just go away. They’re so respectful of the program — and people think Joe (Pease) and I are crazy — but we really have no discipline problems, absolutely none.

“They continue to do the right thing.”

Tonight’s commencement keynote speaker will be Portage High School’s dean of students, Brad Meixner. Meixner also went through tough times as a teenager, PAA Principal Matt Paulson said.

“Grit, resilience and perseverance,” is how Paulson summarized Meixner’s advice for PAA students, a path that for Meixner was about “surrounding himself with the right kind of people and putting himself in the right situations.”

‘You can actually do this’

Zick didn’t hesitate when asked how he would sell the idea of attending PAA to another student.

“Here they teach you life skills, job skills — things the high school doesn’t because they don’t have time to,” Zick said.

For struggling students, he added, attending high school can feel somewhat hopeless until “you kind of give up.” But at PAA, students are afforded the “the mentality that you can actually graduate, you can actually do this.”

“I think that it is a really good option for people who cannot quite learn the same way maybe other people learn,” Zick said.

“Everybody’s different, everybody’s unique, and they learn in different situations.”

Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau

Portage Daily Register reporter