The Cedar River has seeped into Taylor Elementary students’ homes, evacuated their neighborhood and, in 2008, inundated and closed their school with 3 feet of standing water.
The waterway is, for better or worse, a key part of the southwest Cedar Rapids community — and why when Taylor Elementary becomes a magnet school and “Cedar River Academy at Taylor” next school year, its academic theme will build upon what Principal Andrea Scott called “the community’s foundation.”
“How do we help mitigate this river that brings us so much, but also at the same time has been a challenge for us? It empowers students to learn about erosion and climate change,” Scott said. “When we talk about our sustainability theme, it’s about the environment ... but for children, we look at the community part, the economic part, and we also look at it as the sustainability of yourself.”
Both Taylor and McKinley Middle School — which will become McKinley STEAM Academy and focus on science, technology, engineering, arts and math — are set to become magnet schools come August. The district’s admission lottery for magnet schools is open until March 8.
Students who live within a magnet school’s boundary automatically are permitted enrollment. Students living outside will be admitted through a blind lottery, which does not have any academic qualifiers.
Both schools join a band of magnet schools in the public Cedar Rapids district: elementaries Johnson STEAM Academy and Kenwood Leadership Academy, and the middle school-level Roosevelt Creative Corridor Business Academy.
Johnson and Kenwood both recently received National School of Distinction Merit Awards from Magnet Schools of America.
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“The district is really committed to innovation across the district, so there’s a lot of really great things happening in multiple schools — a lot of innovative maker spaces, a lot of the things that we do at magnets,” said Cassidy Reinken, a magnet coordinator for the district. “One of the big differences is, they’re not welcoming students from other parts of the city.”
The district’s magnet schools are held to the same academic criteria as its traditional schools but approach lessons through a building-wide theme. At Taylor, Scott said she hopes staff can tie the city’s sustainability goals into lessons as well as the neighborhood’s bioswales, monarchs and prairie gardens.
The same will be expected at McKinley, Principal Jason Martinez said.
“We don’t want this to be just simply, ‘You get STEAM,’” he said. “We want kids to get out into the community, get hands-on experiences and be able to really judge if this is something (students) are really passionate about.”
Those lessons will likely include “real life” experiences and job shadows with partners like Mercy Medical Center, which has a location across the street.
“There’s something about a kid who comes back from a field experience and says, ‘I had no idea it was like that,’ or ‘The book doesn’t say that,’” Martinez said. “We want to give kids that opportunity.”
One of the district’s magnet coordinators, Jillian Schulte, emphasized the importance of contextualizing students’ learning.
“I always kind of chuckle when I hear, ‘When they grow up’ or ‘When they get into the real world,’” Schulte said. “They live in the real world, right? ... The more that we can get them out into the community and get content experts into our building, the more that they understand, ‘I’m not just learning this for when I grow up, I can do this. I’m learning this so I can develop the skills and dispositions to have my learning matter now.’”
Many of McKinley’s students attended Johnson STEAM Academy, a mile from McKinley, that opened in the 2015-2016 school year as the district’s first magnet school.
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The district’s magnet offerings are meant to offer choice within a public school setting, district officials said then, as well as attract and retain students who might otherwise enroll elsewhere.
Both McKinley and Taylor have capacity for hundreds of additional students, Martinez and Scott said.
Nearly 1,400 students opted to leave schools in the Cedar Rapids district through open enrollment last school year, according to the Iowa Department of Education.
The district’s falling enrollment is a factor in the district’s facilities plan to close eight elementary schools — including Taylor, though it is not scheduled to close for at least a decade.
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