Cedar Rapids Community School District superintendent touts increased enrollment

New initiatives, including foreign language in the elementary school program, discussed at second State of the District event

Published: December 13 2013 | 10:08 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 12:48 am in
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During his second State of the District event, Superintendent Dave Benson Friday showcased the district's work to implement education reform and other initiatives over the last year.

In an hour-long multimedia presentation at the district's Educational Leadership and Support Center — which touched on the district's foreign language program, magnet schools, the Big Ideas Program, teacher leadership and the incorporation of technology in curriculum — Benson talked about how he feels the Cedar Rapids Community School District is paving the way for the future of education in the state.

Benson split up the presentation, asking those involved directly with some of the district's new initiatives to explain them and how they're working, starting with Valerie Dolezal, the executive director for pre-kindergarten for eighth grade.

Dolezal explained the district's foreign language in the elementary school program (FLES), which serves kindergarten through third grade students. Through FLES, teachers help students learn a second language by having them act things out, with hand gestures, songs, music and other methods that encourage engagement. The program will be expanded to fifth grade students by 2015.

Dolezal also talked about the district is helping Schools in Need of Assistance (SINA) that are required to go through a restructuring process by the federal government. The district has brought in specialists to help those schools in the turnaround process — which involves monitoring and mentoring teachers — who spoke alongside teachers from Garfield Elementary at the event about how the program is working.

After a presentation by Trace Pickering, associate superintendent for innovation, school improvement and technology, on the district's research into bringing magnet schools to the area, Benson showcased how the integration of technology into the district's existing curriculum has helped students, teachers and parents connect through a program called Canvass and Microsoft 365.

Mary Ellen Maske, deputy superintendent, explained the website tool, Canvass, that allows students to do some classwork online, and other classwork in class. With Canvass, students participate in discussions, take quizzes, turn in papers, check on upcoming assignments and watch instructional videos online in preparation for other work to be done in class. Students are also able to message their teacher with questions, and parents can log in to see what their kids are learning and what assignments are coming ahead.

"It's wonderful that we've recognized what can exist through technology, and that is learning can occur 7, 24, 365," Benson said. "It is no longer an element that is contained within the four walls of a teacher's classroom so we're very pleased."

Benson also took time to thank the city and county for their flood recovery work, crediting them for the district's increased in for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade enrollment of about 200 more students this year.

"Any expert will tell you it takes a decade to recover from a natural disaster like the significance of this flood, but we are on year five and the school district is no longer shedding students," Benson said. "We are gaining students back and I attribute that to our city and county leaders."

The event concluded with a few words from Brad Buck, Director of the Iowa Department of Education, who is also a graduate of Jefferson High School. Buck said he was excited by what the district has been up to.

"I was excited to watch what's unfolding today. The work that's underway in Cedar Rapids is running right in tandem with what we're trying to do at the state level," Buck said.

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