What if a standards-based public high school was built entirely around student-designed projects, and driven by engagement, passion, community interactions, and action-oriented results? Would it serve the needs of both high achieving students and those who have struggled with school in the past? Is this the niche of elite college preparatory schools or the ones we have labeled “progressive”? How would teachers support their students if there is no set curriculum to “teach”.
These are questions being asked and answered at The BIG Ideas School in Cedar Rapids, a new pilot program in the Cedar Rapids Community School District that gives thousands of high school students the opportunity to engage in interdisciplinary project-based learning outside the boundary constraints of rigid subject, classroom setting, and traditional curriculum.You can learn all about BIG Ideas on their website, so I won’t go into full detail here.
I spoke with lead teacher and school head Shawn Cornally and teacher Michelle Barker today. In summary, students in traditional high schools elect to spend anywhere from 50-100% of their time at BIG Ideas, working with the teachers to imagine, create, design, implement, test, and report out on projects that reflect their personal passions. Most of the projects are done out in the community and many are supported by a growing network of community partners. The students are assessed, get a grade and credit, and the work they do is mapped back to the same learning standards used in the regular schools. If I could summarize in a sentence, this entire school takes the power of capstone projects and leverages it across an entire curriculum.
Shawn says they have deliberately started small, with just 30 students and four teachers in their first year. They plan to expand to about 100 students next year, and in subsequent years students will likely be enrolled full time at BIG Ideas. Their students mirror the district: about 50% free and reduced lunch, significant ELL, and just about 8% gifted and talented. I asked if traditionally high achieving and self-directed students seem to be more attracted to, or successful in the program.
“That is what you might think, but we are actually finding the opposite to be true”, Shawn said. “Students that are not motivated to learn at a traditional school has nothing to do with their level of learning and everything to do with their distaste for repetition and what we might call boredom. When the come to BIG they tend to do better. Our gifted kids tend to ask ‘what do you want me to do next week’.”
This is a school that you want to connect and learn from and with as they expand. They are testing a model that will grow, completely in the public sector, with public funding, both financially and academically accessible to all students. They anticipate that they will have options in the future for both full-time, fully integrated students, and those who want to spend some of their time at BIG and some of their time in a more traditional school environment. Shawn and Michelle very clearly see BIG Ideas as a choice students can make towards a vastly greater differentiation of learning options, and away from the assembly line model of learning.