First in an occasional series.
CEDAR RAPIDS — A seventh-grade science teacher and middle school principal stood on a Wellington Heights porch and knocked on the door.
“They’ve got a hoop in the back for Grace,” the teacher, Kristin Noonan, noticed. “She comes to school super early to play.”
No one came to the door that Saturday last weekend. Many families work odd hours or hesitate to answer an unexpected knock, McKinley Middle School Principal Jason Martinez said. Or they just could be sleeping in on one of the last Saturday mornings of summer break.
He and Noonan left sheets of paper under the door — giving information about free lunches, school buses and checking grades online.
Then they rejoined the small group waiting on the sidewalk: Cedar Rapids Community School District administrator Adam Zimmermann, his wife Leah, their 1-year-old son, Abe, Gazette photojournalist Rebecca F. Miller and me.
We walked on, with the school district staff peeling off to knock on more students’ doors.
One father, in a house with bikes strewn across the yard, said his eighth-grader still was asleep inside. A grandfather said he worried his sixth-grader would be bullied at McKinley, like he was. A woman stood in her doorway and quietly told us, yes, everything was going OK.
In the end, the McKinley staff hoped to leave families a simple message: We’re here.
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Principal Martinez told me he chooses to walk in Wellington Heights because it’s these families — nearly all within walking distance of McKinley — who feel the farthest away.
Many here are from historically disadvantaged groups; many are black, have low incomes or are not native English speakers.
“Trying to build that bridge and those relationships with families who feel the most disconnected is only going to benefit not only us, but them and the district overall,” he said. “All of our families are hardworking people who want the best for their kids.”
This is McKinley — a group of stop-at-nothing teachers and administrators, a community reaching for something more, 440 students navigating being 12 and 13 and 14 years old.
It’s a place I think is rich with stories.
It’s a 97-year-old institution being bent into a STEAM Academy for engineering and technology classes, where one-third of students still aren’t reading proficiently, where teachers are learning to give students control of their own learning.
Academic, social and emotional growth takes time. As school starts again Monday, Rebecca and I plan to spend significant time in McKinley classrooms to document it in real-time all school year. I hope our reports from inside one school help shed light broadly on public education today.
And if McKinley means something to you — whether you went there, send your kids there, work there or just see the towering building on your way to the office — I hope you’ll help us tell these stories well. My email, at the end of this piece, is always open to you.
Although the Cedar Rapids district and the staff at McKinley — rebranding this year as McKinley STEAM Academy — have welcomed this project, all coverage that appears in our news report will be produced independently.
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On Aug. 17, when about a dozen school staff fanned across McKinleys’s attendance zone, they went with a map of homes to visit — not only in Wellington Heights, but on winding roads in Vernon Heights, in apartments south of Mount Vernon Road and at farmhouses near Indian Creek.
“One of McKinley’s big virtues is diversity,” Middle Level Education Executive Director Zimmermann told me as we walked across 16th Avenue SE. “We have some of our most privileged and some of our most needy. These guys are seeking a way to make sure that everyone’s needs are met.”
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How to engage with this series
• Join the conversation on The Gazette’s Facebook page and on Twitter at #McKinleyMatters.
• Have a question, suggestion or tip for the journalists behind this project? Email reporter Molly Duffy at firstname.lastname@example.org and photographer Rebecca F. Miller at email@example.com.
• Keep an eye out for new features every month in print and online at thegazette.com.
• More photos, videos and audio stories will be posted online at thegazette.com/mckinleymatters.