History of Iowa BIG
Iowa BIG was created by the Cedar Rapids/Marion community in the years following the 2008 flood. Chuck Peters, then CEO of the Gazette Companies, was interested in igniting different community conversations around education. Peters had read a critique of the Governor’s “Blueprint for Education” written by Trace Pickering. Peters commissioned Pickering to create conversations on what it is we really want our kids to know, do and be like as adults and citizens and away from less powerful conversations around grading, standards, union or no union, charters, etc.

Pickering hired Shawn Cornally, an educator who had explored the full range of the standards-based grading movement, to join him in the effort. After marginally successful attempts, the team landed on a project they unofficially called, “The Billy Madison Project.” The idea was to send a diverse group of community members back to school as students and then engage them in a conversation based upon a real and recent school experience.

Nearly 60 community members participated, representing the face of the community – age, gender, ethnicity, job and industry experience, native and transplant Iowans, etc. In small groups, participants experienced a day as a student and then spent an afternoon together debriefing their experiences. In each and every group, the basic themes were the same: 

  • Kids are largely bored

  • Teachers are working hard to connect and make things interesting

  • A recognition that by splitting out all the courses into their discrete subjects made the learning boring and the teaching hard

After brainstorming the list of things they believed a person needed to have to be successful – like collaboration, working in diverse groups, communicating effectively in a variety of ways, dealing with issues that didn’t have easy answers, etc. – they developed a vision for a school environment that would deliver on the things they wanted. They developed 3 themes from which to design a school experience:

  • Passion. Start by tapping into a student’s interests and use that as a powerful learning tool. Passionate people are successful people.

  • Projects. They recognized that almost all work in school is “fake” – meaning it didn’t have much, if any, direct impact beyond the classroom. They wanted kids engaged in solving real world problems and seeing how content actually lives in the real world.

  • Community. They wanted kids to be strongly networked in the community and to see all of the great people and wonderful opportunities that exist in the Corridor.

Near the conclusion of this project College Community and Cedar Rapids stepped up to provide resources and a “sandbox” from which to begin building the school. Iowa BIG, which teaches kids core academics and 21st century skills through authentic projects with community partners, was born in 2012.

Iowa BIG now provides this unique, 21st century learning environment to 250 kids in 4 school districts (Linn Mar joined in 2016, Alburnett in 2019) in two locations. An additional Iowa BIG affiliate serves over 60 kids in the Charles City and New Hampton area.