Showing students a different path

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After 42 years as an educator, Joe Digieso’s retirement allows him to be free to indulge his passion: cooking.

Well, that is probably and overstatement – probably.

What is certain is that Joe Digieso, along with his business partner, co-founder of The Cottage School and wife, Jacque Digieso, has retired knowing The Cottage School is in good hands. It will continue to show young students there is more than one path to learning.

I first met Joe when my wife, Kathy, and I were searching for a solution to our younger daughter Tobye.

She was a bright girl in 1993, but was intimidated by school. She was the sophomore Science Student of the Year at Honors Day but flunked algebra. She had always had difficulty with written tests. She felt she was a failure, and we felt like we had to do something.

The Cottage School turned out to be the big change in her life.

Joe came to teaching in a left-handed way himself. He had met and married Jacque and decided that the corporate ladder was not for him. Joe caught the teaching bug from Jacque. Joe has got his master’s degree in teaching and was in Decatur. He got the job of trying to teach angry young students who were not getting anywhere in school but not yet 16 so they couldn’t drop out.

“Ninety percent of them couldn’t read. The system obviously was not geared to help them. Jacque and I had talked about the need for an alternative for these kids who could learn but not in the public school environment,” he said.

The key Joe found was to make them hands-on experiential learners. That became the population for The Cottage School and for our Tobye.

What The Cottage School does is put the responsibility for their success on them – and then shows them the path to do it.

“For an external structure, we use a business model. Our students earn Cottage dollars. If you are on time, you earn a dollar. If you’re late, we can’t pay you. This puts the student in control,” he said.

With Cottage dollars, they pay for privileges and activities. The students act as employees and the faculty are employers in this model. They earn their grades and are rewarded by the school for meeting performance standards.

“That let’s Johnny figure out the path to success. So if they’re on time they get $1. If they meet the dress code – that’s another dollar. And they get paid at every class. If they have their materials with them or complete a task, it’s a buck,” Joe said.

Always, the student is in ultimate control of getting the reward, Joe said.

“The teacher is not the bad guy, because ultimately it is not teacher’s decision. The student is in control.”

And as students succeed at the small things, they are led to work toward bigger successes in the classroom.

“Nothing breeds success like success,” Joe says. “We take a child who is helpless and hopeless and put the power back in their hands. And suddenly they have that ‘Aha!’ moment.”

Last Sunday, they threw a barbecue to say goodbye to Joe. Dozens of students were there. To hear them say how much they owed Joe, how much they loved Joe, put tears in your eyes.

At Joe’s retirement party Sunday on the Cottage School campus, I watched these young people who came back to thank him for opening doors they thought would never be opened. Here they were, successful and happy. Many brought families of their own.

Opening doors so young people can reach their true potential. Now that is a heady gift to bestow.


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