CEDAR RAPIDS — In the first year of broad implementation in Cedar Rapids schools of project-based learning programs, participating students were more engaged and in some cases more academically successful than their peers, district data show.
The programs — the Iowa BIG high school and the option programs started last year at Roosevelt Middle School and Jefferson High School — allow students to spend part of the school day learning about English, math and other subjects through large-scale business and community projects, rather than traditional lessons.
Similar initiatives are starting this year at Johnson STEAM Academy, now a magnet elementary, and Metro High School. (The Gazette’s parent, The Gazette Company, is a financial sponsor of Iowa BIG.)
The idea, said associate superintendent Trace Pickering, is that when students are given more freedom with their schedules and the projects they work on, they will be more passionate about what they learn and more likely to retain the information.
Preliminary test score and survey data seem to support that argument.
At Jefferson High last school year, the percentages of students who were proficient on the Iowa Assessments was higher among option students than among non-option students by more than 20 percentage points, across science, math and English.
In addition, a greater percentage of option students met test score growth targets than their non-option peers, across three subject areas. However, the school did not have data on 13 percent of the non-option students because those students had attended a different school the previous year.
At Roosevelt Middle, students in the school’s option program rated themselves on the ACT Engage questionnaire as having greater academic discipline and commitment to school, and better relationships with school staff, than non-option students.
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And at Iowa BIG, 95 percent of students the school surveyed said they felt a greater sense of ownership in their learning after their experience there.
Academic data for the Roosevelt program and Iowa BIG were inconclusive, Pickering said.
On Thursday at Iowa BIG, students heard pitches for possible projects from several community and business groups, including OPN Architects, the city of Cedar Rapids and Van Meter Inc. Projects last school year included an urban orchard and Success to the power of She, an empowerment initiative for young women.
The school has received more project ideas this year than it has students to work on them, Pickering said, so the pitches were competitive.
Iowa BIG has 92 students this school year — up from about 70 last year — with most of them attending for two or three class periods each day, he said.
Two students are attending full-time, in a pilot program testing whether the school can provide a comprehensive education.
Iowa BIG students said Thursday they liked the freedom the school offers.
“In school, teachers can force you to learn,” said Parks McBride, 15, a first-year Iowa BIG student who also attends Washington High. “Here, you have to drive yourself to get an education.”
Here are percentages of students at Jefferson High School — those in the school’s option program and those outside it — who were proficient on the Iowa Assessments in 2014-15.
Option students: 86.9%
*The option program does not offer advanced math, so none of the option students were in advanced math courses.
Source: Cedar Rapids Community School District.