All parents like to read about how to help children become high-achievers or how to maximize the productivity of the school week. But a group of 65 parents in Iowa took reading and learning to another level on behalf of their school districts' students, and did so with great leadership and entrepreneurialism.

They went back to school (literally) in an attempt to change the moniker that local kids had given their beloved city, "Cedar Crapids." Parents and local leaders alike went through a typical school day, complete with classes, bells, desks, and note-passing (and hopefully without vaping) and learned something important.

They found the kids could be spending their time in more relevant ways--ways different from traditional school and that would better prepare them for the future.

So, as a Ted talk featured on ideas.ted.com detailed, they pooled their efforts and ultimately created a program called "Iowa Big"--designed to make learning much more meaningful for students. In it, students can choose from a variety of multi-disciplinarian, real problems in the community to work on instead of just cramming for a book-driven exam.

The school started in 2013 with just a dozen students and now has an enrollment of over 200 students (with a waiting list to get in). Kids attend their regular school part-time and blend it with several hours a day in Iowa Big where they connect with over 100 businesses, non-profits, and policy groups to work on real problems facing those businesses/the community.

It's no walk-in-the-park escape from grades for the kids. As co-founder of Iowa Big, Troy Miller, put it:

"Students develop their work plan, organize it into tasks, and learn and do what's required to make progress. Individually or as teams, they work on their own for long stretches. Faculty track progress and hold them accountable for completing work, not class attendance or checking off boxes."

Real work, real-world problems to solve, real accountability and real stakes = a really strong incubator for future leaders and entrepreneurs.

While the unmistakable core of the school day for these students is community work, that doesn't mean they leave the school ill-prepared for college. 97 percent of the 500 graduates to date got accepted into the college of their first choice, not to mention the quality of internships and summer jobs they got along the way (according to the Ted talk).

Case in point, Shawn Connally, the other co-founder of the school shares stories of stark contrast, like that of an Iowa Big student named Kyle. Kyle got a hefty paying summer job as a full-time data scientist writing code to analyze business data for a local company.

By the way, Kyle has an "F" in Computer Science on his transcript to show for his traditional school-based exposure to the subject.

So why aren't more school districts trying such experiments? On that Miller says it's fear:

"It's fear--fear of change, fear of what it will mean for college, and a lack of vision. I don't think it's going to come from within the school. The community needs to step up and say: Our students are not being prepared the way they need to be."

Which leads us to what you can do to bring more meaningful, community-based work into your child's portfolio of schoolwork.

How you can bring a little "Iowa Big" to your child's school experience.

I'm certainly not suggesting school districts everywhere are delinquent in their attempts to better prepare kids for the future nor am I suggesting that you have to take on the scope of what Cedar Rapids parents did here.

Start by understanding what enrichment efforts are already underway at your child's school and contribute. You can further affect change by rallying local businesses and non-profits to contribute worthy projects and connect them to your school's children. You can get help from School Retool (a Stanford University non-profit) to learn how to conduct innovative experiments that change standard school approaches.  

You can even rally a like-minded group of fellow parents and community leaders to "go back to school" to get a fresh perspective on the state of the union and then use that as a platform for crafting positive improvements.

Teachers, the real everyday heroes in today's world, need involved communities to help brighten children's futures. Work with your child's teachers and administrators to see if bringing a little "Iowa Big" to your community would be a welcome addition.

Published on: Sep 4, 2018
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