Mauston charter school pushing students past fear of failure

Mauston’s iLEAD charter school is working to move students past fear of failure so they can succeed in the economy of tomorrow.

So says Terry Whipple, executive director of the Juneau County Economic Development Corporation and co-founder of iLEAD. He said the school was started in 2012 to help kids prepare for what they’re going to face in the future, by “sending them on a journey” to explore what they’re most interested in and where they perform best.

It focuses on entrepreneurship and leadership, offering kids in grades 7 – 12 the opportunity for more self-directed learning.

He says the school’s curriculum is mostly project-based, pushing students to pursue learning objectives that are most relevant to them. Projects let them research their interest areas under the supervision of instructors charged with making sure the classic curriculum components — math, science, writing skills, etc. — are being covered.

“It’s funny; in the Midwest, when you step out to explore an idea, you’re on dangerous ground,” Whipple said.

Importantly, he says, they’re teaching students to be unafraid to fail. Whipple worked previously in Silicon Valley, and he says that West Coast culture of failure being acceptable is a big part of iLEAD.

“You can fail 100 times and still be respected — and that’s what you need,” he said. “Not all ideas are good, but once you know the process of exploring an idea safely… Then you start building a community where failure is not a bad thing.”

Though iLEAD is under the same roof as Mauston High School, it’s an entirely separate operation with a “funkier” interior design and its own teachers, who act more like life coaches than standard public school teachers, Whipple says.

These instructors help students figure out their passions, which can range widely for an operation with only 40 enrollees at the moment. Some kids use computer-aided drafting tools for drawing in 3D; some focus on engines and machinery; while others hone their skills by editing self-made videos.

The iLEAD charter school benefits from mentorship coming from the Inventors & Entrepreneurs Club, founded by Whipple in 2003. The idea of pushing through failure to achieve success really started with the club, he says.

“These kids are not that adept at communicating, building a rapport with adults — that’s something we really push,” he said. “The club is a whole pool of mentors for these kids.”

He says no matter what passion students have, iLEAD can tie them to an I&E mentor that has the relevant information and skills. The club now has over 750 members, Whipple says.

And for some students, a normal school structure might not fit their particular needs as well as iLEAD.

Some parents come to the school in a state of desperation, Whipple said, because their child “doesn’t like school, or isn’t doing well.”

But, he said, once students get into iLEAD and begin pursuing things like psychology, writing, electronics and programming in ways that make sense to them, it opens them up to all-new experiences, like collaborating with other students that have different interests and skills.

“They’re finding out there’s more out there in the world than they ever thought there was,” he added.

And with a rapidly advancing global economy, Whipple thinks this kind of educational structure helps students gain skills and education that are more in line with what will be most needed in the future. So far, every single student has graduated.

“It’s making a huge difference,” he said. “These kids are much more adept at grasping that change and going with it; we think they will be much more prepared.”

–By Alex Moe