Community Kings: Iowa BIG

Many people in the Cedar Rapids area haven’t heard of Iowa BIG, but behind the scenes, they’re changing how high school is done. “Basically, it’s initiative-based education,” says Amanda Zhorne, the program coordinator who sat down with River Kings Report at the start of October. “Students drive their own learning. What’s important to them? How can they apply their classroom skills out in the real world?”

The BIG location off Blair’s Ferry looks a lot more like a tech startup than a classroom. It’s a big, open space, where round meeting tables jostle against couches and roller chairs, white boards and flatscreens cover the walls, and a therapy dog roams around in search of scratches and scraps. There are no desks, no blackboards, and the only doors are on small office-style conference rooms that the students use for small-group meetings. The “teachers” — they prefer to be called “facilitators” or “fellow learners” — crash out among the “students,” parking their laptops wherever there’s space. I’ve been here five minutes, and already I’m jealous — I teach college, but I’d kill for a “classroom” atmosphere like this.

“It’s fantastic,” says Mark Matson, who teaches business. “Definitely not your standard classroom.”

The idea, Matson and Zhorne emphasize, is for students to find what’s important to them, then use that passion as an avenue into skills-based learning. “They’ll get the traditional curriculum skills,” Matson says. “There’s nothing we can’t build onto.” Zhorne amplifies: “Whatever the student project is, we can make it work. We’ll find a way to build in that classroom piece. Say they’re here for Language Arts, but the project they’re working on doesn’t necessarily end up going in that direction. We’ll get the student together with the instructor, and they’ll find a way to custom-design a piece of the project that both contributes to the project, and fulfills the academic objective.”

“It’s a huge advantage going into college,” Matson says, replying to my question about the program’s academic outcomes. “They get standard grades, standard class credit. They take all the standardized tests. Their transcripts coming out of high school look exactly like everyone else’s. Except,” he emphasizes, “that they’ve got all this additional real-world experience. We’ve had admissions officers in from [local colleges] and we’ve asked them, and they all say it makes a huge positive difference. BIG graduates really stand out from the crowd.”

That kind of out-of-the-box thinking is a perfect fit for the Cedar Rapids River Kings. “Myke and Reggie approached us,” Zhorne says, referring to Partnerships and Promotions Director Myke Darrough and General Manager Reggie Harris. “They wanted to see what the kids could come up with, in terms of marketing, increased ticket sales, and above all increased community awareness.” Currently the students are working on all that, plus putting together a Kids’ Club and working on other projects to build the brands — both the River Kings’, and Iowa BIG’s.

“It’s crazy that this isn’t better known,” says Darrough. “It’s a great program, and a great way for the team to get more involved in the community. “

They’re keeping the project details under wraps for now, but they’ll be rolling out as the season draws nearer. River Kings Report will be staying on top of the latest developments, as this is just one excellent example of the River Kings’ commitment to the Cedar Rapids area. As Coach Mann likes to say, “We are your team.”

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