What does it take to make a school system truly cutting edge? There are many answers to that question, but one program in Iowa is using an approach that has won it national recognition. They call it simply, "Iowa Big."
Shawn Cornally is a math and science teacher in a setting that looks nothing like a traditional school. For starters, there really isn't a school. And the businesses, non-profits and entrepreneurs of Cedar Rapids, Iowa are their partners in this experiment, built on the idea that a school's curriculum should come from the needs of the community.
“You have to find that fuzzy space between its useful to the partner and its academically rigorous for the kiddo,” Cornally said.
That fuzzy space covers a lot of ground. It can encompass everything from an art project for a city park to an efficiency study at a local manufacturing plant, where math and science skills are honed and tested.
It attracts students like Maya Gonlubol, who struggled in a traditional classroom.
“I love it. I love it. I feel like I learn more here every single day,” said Gonlubol.
“Really, they went out and found the technology. They found a low, middle high solution. They pitched it to myself and my team. They put a budget around it and they gave us a recommendation on the technology we should go with,” said Scott Presley with Van Meter, Inc.
And that real life application is the key to the whole program. Every single project has to have the backing of someone in the community.
George Elossais went from working in retail jobs after school to running a business putting together pitch proposals for local companies. Matthew Rooda was one of his first clients.
“We actually went to a pitch competition down in Kansas City. It was a global competition and it was one of the top three. And his pitch deck pretty much got us there,” said Rooda.
George says it’s given him a new connection to his hometown, which the folks at Iowa Big are convinced will help them keep their homegrown talent.
“We want them to have their heartstrings tied back to our community. And the way we do that is by giving them opportunities during their high school years to grow themselves in ways and with experiences they would have never otherwise have had in the traditional academic sense,” said Troy Miller with Iowa Big.
Iowa Big is going into its fourth year in the fall and the hope is to find the resources to make it even bigger.
Right now, it reaches just 100 kids, only a fraction of the students in Cedar Rapids. But, the founders are convinced that in this small project, are the seeds of something giant.
“To me, that's the moment. I don't even care if it’s an aquadrone. I don't care if it’s the redesign of a park of a piece of legislation. It’s that combination of feeling what engagement feels like and having an adult care. That, to me, you never lose,” Cornally said.