Small Iowa school district embraces big changes for collaboration
Only 'matter of time' before similar spaces pop up across Iowa, expert says
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ELDON — Just miles from the simple farm house that inspired Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” a small school district has outfitted itself with state-of-the-art technology and a forward-thinking curriculum.
Visitors to the rural, 800-student Cardinal Community School District don’t expect its high-tech classroom or lounge area, Superintendent Joel Pedersen said.
“They oftentimes think it looks like a college classroom or like a Fortune 500 (company’s) room,” Pedersen said. “ ... They’re really shocked when they walk in — how nice and inviting it is and how much technology is infused in our buildings.”
The “21st Century Classroom” in the district’s shared middle and high school building has whiteboard walls and desktops for students to scribble on, wheeled desks and chairs they can rearrange and multiple TVs that can display class assignments.
The space, paid for with funds from the state’s penny sales tax, is meant to promote student collaboration, administrators said.
More and more of those types of spaces — known to educators as “student-centered” classrooms — are being built in Iowa schools.
Laura Wood, a 21st Century Learning specialist for the area education agencies that oversee much of southern Iowa, has helped advocate for those spaces.
“That is the shift — when teachers and educators talk about ‘the shift,’ it’s that student-centered model,” Wood said. “I think it’s just a matter of time before we move from small pockets of things happening to (having them) scaled and happening all over.”
Similar student-centered spaces have popped up in Cedar Rapids, Waukee, Mount Pleasant and Hamburg, she said.
“I think if we promote student agency,” Wood said, “then I think you’re going to see more of those open floor plans happening.”
While students can collaborate in traditional classrooms, 21st century spaces treat group work as the default, said Cindy Green, Cardinal’s director of curriculum and instruction.
“Our focus and our push is to get kids collaborating,” she said, “because when they leave and go out into the workforce, they’re going to need to be cooperating with their peers.”
For the Cardinal district, Superintendent Pedersen said he thinks the spaces also have helped turn around falling enrollment trends.
Six years ago, more students were leaving the school district than coming in through open enrollment, which allows students to enroll in a district other than their home district.
Since then, the trend has flipped — in 2016, open enrollment netted a total of 172 students for the district.
“I’d like to think that facilities matter,” Pedersen said. “But our focus is on relationships, and one thing we do is letting our parents know that we do care about their kids, first and foremost, and then we really work on quality instruction.”
The fancy facilities have led to more school pride among students, too, and Pedersen said he hopes that feeds into academic performance.
“Especially in an area where we’re at about 58 percent free-and-reduced lunch rate,” Pedersen said, referencing an indicator of poverty, “I’m really proud we can give our kids some of the nicest learning spaces in Iowa.”
High school student Madison Langford, 15, said she and her classmates enjoy using the redesigned spaces. This winter, they created Christmas tree ornaments using the 21st Century Classroom’s computers and 3D printers.
“I think we just like to do different stuff that we wouldn’t get to in a normal classroom setting,” she said. “There’s so many different things to do in there. It’s better than a normal classroom — because in a normal classroom, you’re at a desk.”
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