116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — In 1972, after the closing of the laboratory schools at the University of Iowa, a small group of educators and parents saw a gap in local school options and set out to fill it.
Sixteen children and a handful of staff would subsequently embark on a learning adventure in a small white house on Fairchild Street, where Willowwind School opened its doors for the first time.
Nearly half a century later, the adventure continues — now on Dover Street — with 110 students in preschool through sixth grade.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Willowwind School’s founding in Iowa City.
“We are proud to have been a part of Iowa City’s rich academic community for the last 50 years,” Willowwind Head of School Michelle Beninga said. “(W)e beam with pride when we think about the thousands of children and families impacted by our school’s mission to provide our community with joyful learning experiences where children can develop their unique potential through child-led inquiry.”
While the school community has gone through changes in the last five decades, many long-standing traditions remain, including mixed-grade classrooms and group discussions.
“A foundational pillar of the school then and now is for students to utilize their strengths and interests to dive deep into learning through hands-on experience; personalized learning experiences; small, multi-age classrooms; and accessing the rich community around our school as an extension to the classroom,” Beninga said.
Willowwind’s current campus is home to green roofs, bioswales, naturally-lit classrooms, murals and sculptures. The school added a preschool program based on the teachings of Maria Montessori in 2007-2008 and began the process for independent accreditation for its K-6 program through Independent School Association of the Central States.
This past school year, Willowwind piloted an integrated arts program, weaving the arts into core instruction. Doing so invites students to dive deeper into meaningful learning and to explore and engage with the school’s social justice curriculum through creativity and collaboration, Beninga said.
For example, students perform puppet shows on women in history and plays on social justice.
“Learning and art are meant to be shared, to captivate, and to inspire,” Beninga said. “We are thrilled to bring even more student learning out of the classroom and into the wider community. … We are proud to offer unique learning experiences to our community’s children where the arts, social justice and social-emotional learning are front and center alongside reading, writing and arithmetic.”
Ruth Manna, a founding member of Willowwind, said the school got its name from the book “Wind in the Willows,” which was a favorite of the school’s first director, David Hall.
So when the school’s original property — the small white house on Fairchild Street — came complete with a willow tree in the front yard, the name Willowwind seemed a fortuitous fit.
Driving up to Willowwind today, visitors see a large willow tree planted in honor of the school’s origins.
Willowwind board member and school graduate Mike Watson still remembers his first day of school “way back in the fall of 1982” as a first-grader.
“I didn't know anyone, as we had moved to Iowa City from Des Moines, but quickly had kids interested in playing games in the front yard,” Watson said.
Forty years later, his children have graduated from or are attending the school.
“It’s gratifying as I see them having many of the same types of interactions with teachers and fellow students that I was lucky enough to have that often allow the chance to know others beyond the student/teacher roles generally assigned to us in larger, public settings,” Watson said. “In many ways, it seems unbelievable that much time has passed.”
Manna said she, Hall and others started Willowwind with the goal of cultivating a school community rooted in the idea that learning best takes place in a relaxed atmosphere of mutual trust and respect, with a consistent care for the whole child. That led to a focus on group discussions to teach active listening, compassion and collaboration.
“When we began the school, we didn’t realize that 50 years later they would still be doing the same sorts of things with the same spirit and the same respect and the same compassion for each other,” Manna said.
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