Iowa Teens Are Spending Less Time in Classrooms, and Succeeding More — Here’s How

Iowa BIG is revolutionizing high school, collaborating with districts to give students opportunities to learn & grow through community-based projects.

By Andrew Bauld

This article has been produced in partnership with The 74 and originally ran on that site.

High school senior Lydia Nichols never expected to fall in love with auto racing. 

It certainly wouldn’t have happened sitting in one of the classrooms at her traditional comprehensive high school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. But Nichols only spends half her day at that campus. 

The rest of her learning happens half an hour away at Iowa BIG, a credit-bearing program for public school students in downtown Cedar Rapids where teens learn through community-based projects. This year, Nichols devised a plan to revitalize Hawkeye Downs Speedway, which has struggled to attract visitors. It’s “a huge part of our city’s history, and we don’t want to lose something like that,” she said.  

Nichols and the other students on her team decided to host a race this summer where teens are the drivers. By April, they had already raised $30,000 for the event. They purchased cars, commissioned local businesses as sponsors, and launched a marketing campaign to attract drivers and spectators, hoping to fill the Speedway’s stands with nearly 5,000 fans. 

Besides having fun working with the racing community, Nichols said she’s developed marketing, fundraising and event-planning skills. “I really wanted to be involved in the community and help people, and BIG helped me discover the career I want to go into,” she said, adding she’ll study project management in the fall at the University of Iowa. 

[For fresh ideas on how to design innovative community projects at your school, sign up for The XQ Xtra — a newsletter for educators that comes out twice a month. Sign up here.]

BIG launched in 2013 in collaboration with the Cedar Rapids School District and the nearby College Community School District. Since then, it has inspired students to follow their curiosity and discover their passions. BIG later gained support from the XQ Institute in 2016. Today, over 100 students come to BIG from four different high schools, spending half their day at their “mothership” schools and the other half at BIG, working on real-life projects and earning credits in English, social studies and business. 

Iowa BIG features many of the research-based XQ Design Principles that demonstrate the impact of what happens when education doesn’t just look like real life but is real life. Students at BIG feel more meaningfully engaged in their learning because they are given autonomy in designing projects connected to community partnerships

Because BIG’s students remain officially enrolled in their home schools, Iowa doesn’t report on their outcomes separately. However, the school shared data with XQ showing BIG’s 2022 graduates from Cedar Rapids High School boasted a higher average ACT score than graduates both statewide and nationwide. BIG’s innovative environment provides lessons for other high schools on how to help students feel more connected to their learning — something they’ll need to succeed in college, careers and in life.

Students watching a computer

Collaboration by Districts Leads to a Hub for Innovation

Housed in a shared entrepreneurial space without classrooms in New Bohemia, Cedar Rapids’ thriving arts and cultural district, BIG students work alongside local startups. In this way, BIG makes smart use of time, space, and technology — another one of the XQ Design Principles researchers say can lead to more equitable outcomes for all pupils. 

BIG shows how schools can collaborate to provide student-centric, place-based education they wouldn’t have the capacity to do on their own. The two district partners support BIG financially, covering part of the rent, the director’s salary and equipment expenses. Each district supplies two full-time, certified teachers.

“They’ve got a level of infrastructure and program-building that allows it to scale but also to operate as a hub that’s close to the bone,” said Angela Lyle, a research fellow in the School of Education at the University of Michigan and author of a recent Brookings case study on the transformative impact of BIG. “They are looking deeply at instruction, learning from it and accelerating learning across the network as a whole.”  

It can be financially and programmatically challenging for districts to partner with BIG; a third district pulled out of the collaboration. And for students, shuffling between two distinct learning environments can be a struggle at times. “When you’re doing traditional school, it kind of just feels uninspiring,” said Nichols.

But she also acknowledged advantages. “Since I go to Washington High School, I’m able to be open to all the traditional high school stuff I’d be missing out on while still going to such an amazing program,” Nichols explained, listing extracurriculars, sports and school dances as just some of the perks of still attending her mothership school. 

Giving Students Autonomy Requires Help with Time Management 

Iowa BIG gives students an unusual amount of autonomy. But for some, the sheer amount of choice can be overwhelming. 

“The biggest thing kids struggle with is coming for the first time and not knowing how to have any agency,” said BIG’s Community Development Specialist Megan Swanson, who experienced it firsthand when she, herself, was a student at BIG. “In the traditional system, you’re told what to do, and it’s hard to break away and make decisions for yourself.”

BIG’s teachers help students learn to manage their time by utilizing a set of principles called “Modern Agile,” more often seen in organizations like Google than in high schools. With this tool, English teacher Nate Pruett said students spend time reflecting on their work with their team and project, “and that’s where kids often begin to identify their weaknesses in using their freedom.” 
Developing these mindsets of self-awareness and the skills to be generous team members are crucial for student success — and central tenets of XQ’s Learner Outcomes. Research finds collaboration, critical thinking and mastering fundamental literacies are the best ways to develop students who are deeply engaged in their own learning and fully prepared for college and career.

Innovation and Rigor Come Together 

BIG is still beholden to traditional academic standards. “Students have free reign over projects,  and if it matches the class or the standards, that’s great,” Swanson said. “If not, we figure out how to make the standards connect.”

For example, one typical English standard is writing for an audience. After students designed a youth outreach campaign for a local auto shop, they were invited to share their experiences on a local radio station. They prepared by researching listenership demographics and practicing how to answer potential questions. Afterward, Pruett determined whether they had met the English standard by reviewing reflections they wrote on the strategies they used to appeal to their audience.  

Students can revise their work until they master a standard, which is then translated into a traditional grade for the student’s mothership school transcript. When a project doesn’t meet all the required subject standards, BIG offers teacher-led seminars once a week to fill in the gaps. Nichols said the structure is conversational and more immersive than a typical lecture. “What we’ve discovered is that a lecture in and of itself isn’t bad,” Pruett said. “It’s bad when that’s all you do.”

Learning Happens Even When a Project Falls Flat

In many schools that use project-based learning, teachers develop the projects. But at BIG, they’re driven by the interests of the students and the community, and Swanson is tasked with building those partnerships. She’s also employed by the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance and meets regularly with business leaders to harvest ideas. 

Swanson said the best projects begin with a problem a partner is trying to solve, like St. Luke’s Hospital, which came to her looking for help in rethinking an occupational therapy toy for children with delayed fine motor skills. For another project, a local farm asked students to help rethink how to get clean water to livestock. 

BIG will reject a community project if it lacks rigor, but when it comes to projects designed by students, BIG hardly ever says “no,” which means sometimes a project fails — just like in life. “We want projects to be real-world, messy, and have kids experience failure and figure out how to make something work,” said co-founder Trace Pickering, tapping into one of XQ’s other research-based design principles, amplifying youth voice and choice.

Students also have the option to leave a project at any time. “Kids can get into the project and realize this isn’t what they wanted to do,” Pickering explained. “Why punish them with some arbitrary timeline that says you have to stick with it?”  

Preparing Students for the Future with Real-World Skills

Based on what he hears from alumni, Pickering said BIG is succeeding in its mission. 

“Overwhelmingly, what they tell us, especially kids going to college, is that they recognized that their roommate or their friend down the hall had no idea how to manage their time, how to advocate for themselves, how to build a network,” he said. “Because they had been in an environment — a high school — where every minute had been scripted.”   

On an XQ survey of seniors in 2022, 97% of BIG’s 12th graders said they felt prepared for their future, and credited BIG for helping them develop collaboration skills as well as the ability to demonstrate and communicate knowledge and learning, creativity and problem-solving and curiosity — all competencies based on the XQ Learner Outcomes.  

This fall, BIG is relocating to the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance building and taking over a floor shared with its next venture: City View, a standalone magnet high school. City View is launching with 200 ninth and 10th graders, funded by the XQ Institute, New Schools Venture Fund, and grants from the U.S. Department of Education.  

As BIG’s principal Dan DeVore put it, “What we really want is for students to have a BIG type experience as well as discover courses where they aren’t beholden to semester-long, hour-a-day block schedule.”

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