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Aurora Institute

Going BIG in Cedar Rapids

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Maria Worthen

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Learn Lessons from the Field

iowa bigCedar Rapids is only twenty minutes down the road from Iowa City, a center of the educational curriculum and assessment industry (ACT and Pearson both have offices there), but feels like a journey twenty years into the future. I had a chance to meet with Cedar Rapids Associate Superintendent, Trace Pickering, and visit Iowa BIG thanks to an introduction from Sandra Dop, competency education guru at the Iowa Department of Education.

In 2008, a devastating flood destroyed Cedar Rapids’ downtown and many residential areas. Community members came together and realized that rebuilding the city provided an opportunity to completely rethink how they did things, including redesigning education. As part of the planning process, community leaders conducted what they affectionately, but unofficially, called the “Billy Madison Project.” Adult community leaders attended high school to see how they would experience it with the hindsight of their own education, life experience, and knowledge of the skills actually needed to be successful in a career. They realized how ridiculous it seemed to ask students to sit through lectures, with bell schedules and silos between subjects. They agreed that the following key elements would be necessary in a new school model:

  • Focus on kids’ passions: because most successful adults have passion for what they’re doing;
  • Get kids out doing real work: the community has more problems and opportunities than the adults can address on their own. The Cedar Rapids area has 7000 high school students—an untapped resource for the community;
  • Make sure kids are learning content in an integrated way: academic rigor is essential, but it must be relevant.

Iowa BIG was founded as a result of these findings and the superintendent agreed to include it in the district’s portfolio of educational opportunities.

Iowa BIG, “Iowa’s initiative-based, entrepreneurial high school experience,” is a partial day program where students can attend up to three classes each day. (Please note: There is one student this year piloting being a full-time student at Iowa BIG.) Now in its third year, Iowa BIG looks unlike any school I have ever seen. If you were to walk into the building or even through the learning spaces, you would have no idea that it was a school. It is co-located in a business incubator and co-works space, with the students using the same rooms as the start-up businesses. (Click here for a video describing the model.)

Visitors can see the visionary key elements of passion, real work, and integrated content in these ways:

There are no classes and no curriculum at BIG.

They don’t have a curriculum—“the community is our curriculum,” is how Pickering framed it. It’s entirely initiative-based (they prefer this term to project-based). Initiatives are created in partnership with the community. Community organizations and businesses identify real needs that students can address. Students and teachers also design initiatives based on interests and passions, as well as the need to learn and demonstrate their learning on specific standards within the academic disciplines. All initiatives are team-based with a student leader and a teacher-facilitator.

Students I spoke with were working on initiatives such as:

  • Developing an online teen job listing board for the Cedar Rapids area
  • Installing a working model of the solar system in a public park
  • Building a device that measures the presence of plasticides (particles) in bodies of water
  • Researching plastic-eating fungus to turn landfills into farms
  • Turning crude oil into its various derivatives—gas, motor oil, plastic—and making a documentary about the process. No one—neither the science teacher nor the students—have any idea how to do this, but they know they will figure it out as part of the project, and teach and learn almost all the chemistry standards along the way. (I was there when the two gallons of unrefined Texas Crude arrived and watched as the students excitedly opened the package.)
  • Co-authoring an article with the associate superintendent on the BIG model to submit for consideration in an education leadership magazine
  • Publishing content to the school’s website and blog
  • Creating a community music meetup to expose more people to the benefits of playing musical instruments
  • Developing a project to get students to commit to 100 hours of volunteerism in the community.

Click here for a list of initiatives.

They also supplement the initiatives to help students build the skills they need to complete the projects and to demonstrate mastery of standards. For example, they have book clubs to address specific literary knowledge in the ELA standards, the idea being that this is the way most adults engage with literature in the real world. They also have weekly seminars in which the educators work with students to build the content knowledge they will need for their initiatives, referred to as scaffolding content knowledge.

Online learning boosts access to additional content.

Iowa BIG uses courses through Iowa Learning Online for disciplines they don’t cover such as world languages, and the district is now in the process of developing their own online courses that are more consistent with the vision and values driving BIG. In other words, they want to make sure all of the educational options are highly engaging, linked to the real world, and interdisciplinary.

There are no seat-time requirements at BIG.

Students are not required to attend for a certain number of hours per day. They are expected to be there when they have a project meeting and for weekly seminars. The rest of the time they may be in the community, at work sites, working with staff at BIG, or with their teammates. Advancement of their projects, which have authentic due dates and deadlines students must meet, drives their efforts.

There are no Cs, Ds or Fs.

There are three options for grades—A, B, or incomplete. To get a passing grade, students must demonstrate mastery multiple times on each priority standard identified by the District for the credits the student is working toward. Teachers credential the learning based on their professional judgment, without the help of rubrics or formal assessments. Instead, they document evidence of learning and constantly watch their students perform and interact with the content in context. Assessment and evaluation are continuous and a natural part of the entire learning process.

Teachers take on the role of project managers.

We’ve all heard the phrase teachers facilitating learning. At BIG, they operate more like project managers, ensuring students are staying on track with timelines and pushing them to think through issues as they come up. They are also informally assessing student progress and determining where intervention or formal teaching is necessary. They track mastery of standards, and teams (all initiatives are team based) communicate around their projects in an online platform developed by one of the teachers.

The focus is on developing independent learners, not test scores.

At BIG the primary focus is on students developing efficacy, resiliency, and the ability to advocate for themselves as they navigate new environments and challenges. They don’t do any test prep for the state summative assessment (and there was no difference between BIG students’ performance and students in the rest of the district); they are pursuing the hypothesis that as students become stronger learners their achievement, and test scores, will go up.

There are no gates.

There are no gatekeepers to entry to BIG. Any student can choose to enroll in Iowa BIG. Because Iowa is an open enrollment state, students can transfer to Cedar Rapids or to the neighboring College Community School District, which shares the funding for BIG, to attend the program. With two exceptions, the student population is demographically similar to the larger district: There is a greater percentage of girls; however, there are significantly fewer students with a disability.

Now in its third year, BIG has about 100 students. There were fifty last year, and eight in the first year. There is one full-time staff member (the director of strategic partnerships) and three full-time teachers.

There are, of course, challenges.

There may not be as much challenge as there is a need to prepare to adjust the model as the scale expands. For example, the BIG team knows that depending solely on teacher judgment for assessing mastery works because there are only three teachers who are actively creating and developing the model. They consider what they are doing to be educational research and development. Should they expand or try to replicate the model, they will need to begin to develop tools to create consistency, including rubrics and assessments. This raises questions about how to transfer knowledge of the model. Currently they believe it will require at a minimum a week of shadowing as well as coaching. They also don’t believe that this model could be as effectively replicated in a traditional school environment. The physical location outside a traditional high school building is an integral part of BIG’s success.

There are also two access-related issues that they are trying to resolve. First, they want to increase accessibility and participation of students with disabilities. Second, the district does not provide funding for transportation. They have found outside funding to cover the cost of municipal buses and taxis for students who don’t drive, but they want more students to be able to take advantage of BIG as well as traverse the community as part of their initiatives. Thus, access to district busing would make the program more accessible and feasible to students.

If you are in the Cedar Rapids area, take the time to visit BIG. It will open your mind to what is possible when K-12 education is completely reinvented to be personalized, engaging, and competency-based.

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