Taylor Wagner knew she needed something different. She was having difficulty learning in the traditional elementary school setting, so she and her family decided it was time for a change. In fourth grade, Wagner transferred to La Crescent Montessori Academy and STEM School.
“I really wanted to switch here because it was something different,” she said. “I was having trouble at the other school. It just wasn’t clicking for me, so I needed a different curriculum to help me get there.”
So Wagner made the move to LMA, where she flourished for the next nine years, and now, she’s on the cusp of making history at the school. On Saturday, Wagner will become LMA’s lone – and very first – high school graduate. The 18-year-old will be the center of attention at a small ceremony at the school that will recognize a pioneer who navigated her own course through the adolescent program’s newly created high school curriculum.
Her graduation day from the 16-year-old school will be the highlight of her scholastic career, as it’s something she’s looked forward to from a very young age. Wagner wasn’t one who got excited by the idea of prom or looked at school as a social gathering to catch up on the latest drama. Her sights were always set on the end goal.
“I wasn’t really excited about prom or I wasn’t really excited about anything else except for graduating,” she said. “I always thought that was going to be the greatest day ever.”
And it will be for her, as well as her classmates and the teachers who’ve seen her grow. It’ll be bittersweet for Wagner to leave the only school she’s known, she said, but exciting for the teachers to send off their first student with an LMA diploma.
“I think for the first time, you get to see the beginning, then the middle, and now we’re able to see the end results,” said LMA adolescent program teacher Tami Holtslander. “That’s the exciting part of it all, finally to see somebody go through it and look through their eyes at the experiences.”
It’s a rare opportunity, she said, because there aren’t that many Montessori high schools in the country, as the creator of the philosophy, Maria Montessori, died before she was able to create a curriculum for older students.
“It’s a fairly new idea in the past 10 years,” Holtslander said. “My children went up through sixth grade and then my daughter went up through eighth grade, but then they all went somewhere else.”
Wagner, though, has had the full Montessori experience. As the oldest student in her school and the only member of her “senior” class, she most times found herself learning in the company of younger students. For several years, she’s been in a classroom consisting of students in seventh grade and older, but she’s found that to be an advantage.
“It’s been really great for me to be around kids who are younger than me because it’s given me someone to be a role model for,” she said. “I’m not striving to hang out with my friends at school, I’m striving to learn something new and teach them, or set a new standard for them to do something great.
“They teach me something new and then I can teach them something new.”
In eighth grade, school staff asked Wagner if she’d be the guinea pig for the school’s venture into a high school curriculum, and she agreed. Since then, Holtslander said she’s been a mentor to the younger students she’s learned with, and for that, she couldn’t be more proud.
“If I could hand select somebody, she would be that person,” she said. “Her mentorship has been amazing for everyone else, to have somebody to look up to and with how independent she is. Everything that you can imagine that’s important to Montessori – independence and finding your passion – that’s what she did.”
Although Wagner’s the only one at her age and skill level at the school, she said her teachers have done a great job of tailoring a curriculum to suit her needs. If she’s having trouble with a concept, they spend more time in that area; if she’s doing well, not as much time is needed. Some classes are with the rest of the students in her grades 7-12 room; some classes are in groups of two or three older students, or even just her. She’s even done some post-secondary education options course work and taken online classes.
But for her, a small class isn’t unusual; it’s actually quite helpful to have a teacher all to herself from time to time.
“I’m used to being in a small classroom. It’s just normal,” she said. “I find it odd when I took my PSEO classes and there were 20 kids in a class, and that’s not even a full high school class.”
Wagner said being the guinea pig hasn’t always been easy, but when she thinks about it, she said it’s neither odd, nor difficult not being in school with any other 18-year-olds. It’s simply her “normal.”
“Because I’ve been in this atmosphere for about a decade, it's always normal to me to be around kids who are older than me and who are younger than me,” she said. “I wasn’t always the oldest, so I did have people to look up to before they left.”
She has friends who attend the high school who she sees regularly for that social outlet, and she was even invited to attend the prom, but she said “it’s actually better that I didn’t have kids my age here because then I was able to focus more on my education, which is why I’m coming to school. But it’s not like that for everybody.”
And even though her high school memories won’t include dances and football games, Wagner will have plenty of good that she’ll look back on. Her teachers come to mind, first and foremost. They’ve been with her throughout a decade of her life – something not many other educators can say.
“They are really good friends of mine. They’re not just my teachers; they’re my mentors,” she said. “We’ve gone through a lot.”
But beyond the people, it’ll be the small experiences she’ll remember most – making and editing a movie, volunteering in the community and job shadowing.
“These are all minute things people might not think about, but when I leave, I feel like I’m going to hold on to the small stuff,” she said, “the stuff that really makes it like we’re a family.”
And she’ll look back at her place in the school with pride. Holtslander credits Wagner for being that person who chose to stick with the school for the entirety of her career.
“It definitely took one particular person to say, ‘I want to be part of it and I want to do this,’” said Holtslander, who’s been at the school since its beginning, “and for her to trust, and her family to trust us, too. That’s pretty big.”
Wagner was happy to take that journey with the school.
“My favorite subject in the entire world is history, so I kind of see myself as that,” she said. “I’m really excited to be able to say, ‘I did something really unique.’”
Next year, Wagner plans to attend Winona State University to study – not surprisingly – history, but she’s vowed to come back and visit her first school.
“I’m sad to leave. I’m excited to get going and do something new, but at the same time, if I had the choice, I wouldn’t leave.”