Option to explore

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: September 1 2013 | 12:01 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 7:51 pm in

By The Gazette Editorial Board

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They’re up to something BIG in the Cedar Rapids school district.

Not that there aren’t a lot of big things going on already.

But the Big Ideas Group program is different. An innovative addition. Project-based. Beyond the usual classroom scope. Personal and passionate. An option to explore and learn outside a traditional classroom while integrating existing curriculum. An opportunity to build a resume to carry forward into postsecondary education and the work world of the 21st century.

“It’s offering an option to have the latitude to explore,” Shawn Cornally, instructor at the BIG Ideas School, told us.

We think it’s exciting. We salute the school board and administration for giving it a try. And we see why The Gazette Company is a partner with the school district, providing some financial and other support.

BIG is an outgrowth of The Gazette’s Iowa TransformEd project, which researched and identified transformative educational initiatives across the state as part of the company’s commitment to community building. Cornally and Trace Pickering were hired to run the venture.

Cornally has been a math and science teacher in the Solon school district. There, he also helped implement standards-based grading, which requires students to demonstrate skills and competencies instead of using letter grades.

Pickering, a longtime educator and former Grant Wood Area Education Agency director, this summer became the Cedar Rapids school district’s associate superintendent of innovation, school improvement and technology.

The two brewed up their concept of the BIG Ideas School last spring, and when Cedar Rapids’ superintendent of schools, David Benson, and school board member Mary Meisterling learned of it, “they called within days and wanted to be part of it,” Pickering said.

BIG Ideas School took root this summer with 16 students, fittingly based at the Vault Coworking and Collaboration Space — a downtown facility that nurtures and connects local entrepreneurs. And now the district has embraced BIG by incorporating it into this school year’s offerings.

Cornally is obviously passionate about this program, which is open to any student in the district at no charge, with credits toward graduation. He wants to fan the interests and passions of students who, with his guidance and occasional “pushing,” design projects that build student’s understanding of concepts within that competency-based measurement model we mentioned above.

“Contextualization is as important as content delivery,” Cornally told us.

BIG, according to Pickering and Cornally, aims to enrich high-achievers’ education experience, as well as help reignite the desire to learn in disengaged learners and offer additional avenues for kids who learn in different ways. It also requires the student to engage the community, as well as earn support of fellow students. It strives to foster an entrepreneurial mindset that relates to the “real world.” And to think BIG.

The projects are wide-ranging, and tie in the academic areas and skills students learn in the classroom.

Pickering and Cornally stress that BIG isn’t intended as a replacement for other courses or programs. It won’t appeal to every student. It’s an option they hope will attract at least 40 to 50 students a year and attract additional private-sector and grant support.

They hope to model program after a similar one in Blue Valley, a school district in Overland Park, Kan., where the Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS) is dedicated to inspiring students to be innovative and successful in the increasingly competitive global market.

We hope the Cedar Rapids school district allows BIG Ideas School a chance to bloom. Its success could spread to other districts and perhaps spur collaborations.

Most important, it has the potential to help more students not only succeed in the real world but shape it for the better.

Comments: editorial@thegazette.com or (319) 398-8262

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Cedar Rapids’ BIG Ideas School

l What is it: Personalized, project-based learning in a competency-based model where students codesign projects tied to their interests.

l Who can enroll: Open to any Cedar Rapids school district student, at no charge; other area students, with tuition.

l Who runs it: A partnership of the school district and The Gazette Company.

l Grades, credits: Available as an elective credit or assessment and grade for a core content course.

l Sign up/more information: See your school counselor and/or contact Shawn Cornally at scornally@cr.k12.ia.us

l More about BIG: www.bigideasgroup.org

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