Little kids can do big things at SAGES charter school

Gloria Hafemeister
Correspondent
Fifth grader Brayden Schlegl explains his project on the life of Henry Hudson during the 10th anniversary celebration of SAGES charter school in Fox Lake, Wis.

FOX LAKE – The motto at SAGES school in Fox Lake is “Little kids can do big things.”

Students at this unique charter school that focuses on agriculture and environmental studies have proven that's true. The school has an enrollment of 120 students in grade 4k-6 who apply their skills in reading, writing, math, and science/social studies on real-world projects. Some of these include collecting data on Bluebird nest boxes and researching the proper way to grow native plant seeds collected from their rain garden, and monitoring the energy usage and efficiency in the school.

After designing and helping build an environmentally friendly school yard that includes a rain garden and outdoor classroom setting, vegetable garden and chicken coop they endeavored to figure out how to cut the school’s energy bills. Students showed off what they learned during the school’s open house last week in Fox Lake.

Ten years after the dream of this agricultural and environmental based elementary school became reality, the public was invited to help the school celebrate and learn more about what makes this charter school in the Waupun Area School District so special.

SAGES’ open house included guided tours by students who explained how each grade is integrating reading, writing, math, social studies and science into projects.

In the years since SAGES started, students have benefited from members of the agricultural community who host tours and visit the school to help students understand more about what they do and why.

Students visit dairy farms, livestock farms and cash grain farms and learn all the processes involved in producing food. The project-based learning connects students to six distinct learning paths including engineering and design biotech, environmental systems, ecosystems, food production and processes, weather and climate. They spend time in the school forest studying nature and learning how to prepare and cook foods outdoors.

Growing their confidence

Megan Hanni, SAGES principal, says the school has helped many students grow their confidence and uncover their personal strengths.

“Academics are still there but we infuse special things that allow them to grow their confidence and their ability to express themselves,” the principal explained.

Hanni is in her first year at the helm at SAGES but she says project-based learning has always intrigued her.  She follows Julie Schmidt who had served as principal and still teaches in the Waupun district.  “Julie left big shoes to fill.  She did a great job.”

She calls Sherry Hicken, the agriculture teacher at SAGES who also helps promote the school and Becky Panzer, kindergarten teacher from the launch of the school, “the

Since SAGES opened in 2012 the staff and district has stayed true to their vision: knowing that each student develops at a different level and SAGES allows them to do that.

Hicken says experience and application are the best instructors. Hands-on projects involving plant growth and study, as well as animal care inspire curiosity and wonder that affords the learners greater growth.

A lesson on barn quilts across Wisconsin incorporated writing, geometry and art for second grade students. The winning quilt design was made into a quilt sewn by SAGES ag teacher Sherry Hicken’s mom.

Student hands-on projects

She says many of the projects incorporate a variety of lessons including writing, math, public speaking, art and science.

One particular project merged writing, geometry and art for second graders. The students learned about many of the state-wide barn quilt projects and the stories associated with those barn quilts. Each year the second graders are challenged to pick a design that they feel has a special meaning, recreate the design by cutting strips of paper and assembling the “quilt” and then writing an explanation of the design. Those touring the school last week had the opportunity to vote on the designs they viewed along the barn quilt trail.

Each year the winning quilt design is made into a quilt sewn by Hicken’s mom. Past quilts adorn the walls of the school while others have been raffled off as fund-raisers for school projects.

Hicken says these hands-on student activities help students take ownership of their school and the activities that happen inside and outside of the classroom walls. By being personally involved in all aspects of the project students develop a sense of pride in the enterprise.

“When we talk with high school teachers they tell us the thing that stands out most about the students who went to SAGES is their ability to communicate through public speaking,” Panzer said.

Students gain that experience by guiding tours at events like the open house and standing before their classmates to explain a project they are working on.

During the open house students in each classroom showed off their projects to visitors and dressed in the appropriate costumes to illustrate their presentation.

A highlight of the open house featured SAGES alumni who shared their favorite memories. These students reminisced over baking bread, camping, gathering plastic for a recycling competition, composting with worms, making the school forest map, rebuilding the community garden, building a teepee and hiking.

High schoolers who attended SAGES reminsice on their experiences while attending the charter school and also took part in the opening of the school’s time capsules.

Going back in time

Following their testimonials, high school students opened two time capsules – one from the day the former Fox Lake Elementary School closed in 2000 and another put together one year after SAGES opened.

As SAGES alumni explored the items inside the time capsule they discovered a photo of No No, the school’s first official cow who made regular visits. In the years that followed, students gained knowledge about bovines from Noel, a calf born to NoNo in 2021.

Sadly NoNo suffered complications from the birth and died, leaving Noel an orphan. Teachers say while it was unfortunate that the cow did not survive, it presented an opportunity for the teachers to talk about the realities of farming and explain that death is a part of the process of life and that sometimes no matter how well the farmer cares for an animal, the animal may not survive.

The event also included a chili supper as a fund raiser.  Organizers say they are pleased that school officials from Waupun, Fox Lake elected officials, alumni and families were in attendance as well as families from other school districts interested in learning more about what the school is all about.

The school currently has 120 students in grades 4K-6.  The window for open enrollment runs through April 29.  To learn more about SAGES check out the school’s web site at www.waupun.k12.wi.us/o/sages.