How a public school district, a local media company, community partners and two idealistic educators are coming together to build a school from scratch.

Shawn Cornally and Trace Pickering want to give education a shot in the arm.

That’s how Cornally described their newest venture, the BIG Ideas School – as a sort of vitamin or supplement for the regular school day. Students who attend BIG part-time define their own community projects, letting their passions guide their path to education.

“For some kids, they don’t need vitamins – for them, school is a totally complete meal,” Cornally said. “But for some kids, and their specific genetics, man, a little vitamin C and B12 will really get them going,” says Cornally.

BIG launched earlier this summer. Already, students have worked on projects using trees to filter wastewater, a mathematical formula to interpret emotions, and the chemistry behind the perfect slice of bacon.

Pending school board approval on August 12, BIG will officially be part of the Cedar Rapids Community School District (CRCSD), giving thousands of high schoolers the opportunity to add a shot of resume-building vitamins to their education.

“We’re trying to create a real public-private partnership where the actual scope of the student’s project is so much larger than what you would usually do during the school day,” Cornally said. “And that’s why we call ourselves BIG.”

Dr. Trace Pickering, Associate Superintendent of The Cedar Rapids Community School District and Shawn Cornally, a high school math and science teacher, co-creators of the Big Idea School.

Dr. Trace Pickering, Associate Superintendent of The Cedar Rapids Community School District and Shawn Cornally, a high school math and science teacher, co-creators of the Big Idea School.


A real public-private partnership

It took years of working in overlapping circles for all of the BIG stakeholders to find each other and bring a totally new school to life.

Cornally has been a math and science teacher in the Solon Community School District since 2008. While there, he helped to implement standards-based grading, which measures what skills a student can actually demonstrate, rather than an overall letter grade for each class. On the side, he created BlueHarvest, a software program that tracks standards-based feedback for teachers and students, and an award-winning education blog.

Pickering is a career educator, school administrator and entrepreneur, who taught in several districts around the state before advancing to the level of executive administrator of the Grant Wood Area Education Agency.

The Gazette Company, and especially CEO Chuck Peters, has an interest in education as it relates to community building (This story, and the entire Creative Corridor Project, are also partial backed by the Gazette’s community building efforts). In 2012, Peters recruited Cornally and Pickering to work for The Gazette Company in a new venture known as Iowa TransformEd, an initiative to highlight transformative educational efforts happening across the state.

Meanwhile, the CRCSD was actively looking for ways to innovate.

“We haven’t changed our instructional system since it began – and that was in the industrial, assembly line days,” said Mary Meisterling, president of the CRCSD board of directors. Board members and staff attended conferences where they learned about standards-based grading and other approaches that were changing education.

Iowa TransformEd quickly began conducting eccentric education experiments. Bacon-Wrapped Lessons is a traveling two-day workshop for ambitious teachers to reinvent their lesson plans together. Edxchange is a database designed to help teachers and community members share resources and expertise or work on problems together. The Iowa Teacher Database helps educators from Iowa’s 350+ school districts find each other.

Perhaps their biggest stunt, however, was the Back To School Project. Nearly 35 business and community leaders were dropped into classrooms as students to see first-hand what school is really like today. After the experience, Cornally and Pickering led a discussion on what they would change if they could.

They started to hear the same things over and over again: School should teach more soft skills. Students need to know how to manage their own time, rather than simply shuffling from class to class. School should teach how to iterate gracefully, rather than accept failure. School should relate to the outside world. And students, to be ready to enter the so-called “real world,” should have an entrepreneurial mindset.

After realizing that a “bizarre, democratic common vision” was starting to emerge, Cornally reduced his time teaching in Solon to found a new school based on those principals.

“You can sit through school without learning, if you want to,” Cornally said. “We said, ‘what would school look like if that was impossible?’”

When Meisterling heard of the concept, she was intrigued, and presented it to her fellow school board members. The personalized nature of the program appealed to her.

“Whatever turns a student on to academic ventures, we want to provide,” she said. “You can’t sit in a classroom with 30 other students and all learn the same thing at the same time in the same way.”

Then, over coffee, she asked Cornally and Pickering if there was a way to integrate BIG into the CRCSD.

Cornally and Pickering were ecstatic. Cornally compared the experience to a tiny startup being acquired by a large company.

“It was the most serendipitous, backwards proposal I’ve ever done,” he said. “It almost feels like this magical, Disney movie situation.”

“To build a learning experience founded on what community members who take the time to go back to school want, tied with foundational research in personalized learning and how the brain learns, is a culmination of something I’ve dreamed about for a long time,” Pickering added.

The rest of the summer was spent figuring out logistics, and it was decided BIG will remain located at Vault Coworking and Collaboration Space, where students can interact with the entrepreneurial  and creative community that also works there. Cornally is now officially a teacher in the CRCSD, and Pickering is an associate superintendent.

The school hopes to attract 40 or more diverse students for the fall semester.

“This is not a school for troubled students, this is not a school for geniuses – this is representative of the Corridor,” Cornally said.

Watch this video from the Big School to better understand how it works:

“We really want what these kids do to be huge,” Cornally said. “A kid walks into my room and I think, ‘Man, how can I make this kid famous?”

Students who attend BIG for 25 to 75 percent of their school hours can earn either elective or course credits. For example, a project that samples from the curricula for chemistry, algebra and physics would earn an elective credit. Or, if a student created a project that dealt exclusively with physics, and could demonstrate that she had mastered the entire curriculum, she could earn a physics credit. (The school is looking to hire a second teacher with endorsements in social studies and English to expand course offerings to those areas.)

For two days each week, Cornally meets with each student individually to discuss progress, give advice and set goals for the week.

For two more days, he spends time in the field helping students with projects, whether it’s donning a hard hat to visit a sewage treatment facility or riding rollercoasters to record acceleration data.

Finally, the students return to Vault to present to each other, and vote on whether each other’s projects should earn funding to go forward.

To be viable, each project must have strong ties to the community. The student must either partner with a community organization, or have a community audience for their end product.

“We’re basically taking education and stirring it up so that it has to deal with the rest of the world,” Cornally said.

He added that this summer has been one of his most stressful periods as an educator, because he wants to make sure all his students are doing amazing work at all times. But, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“In normal school [as a teacher], you always have this droning, lull feeling, like, ‘Well, they came for an hour today, they got something out of that.’ It’s always sort of intangible,” he said. “And I’m just not comfortable with that. This is the future of the world, and I’m going to maybe teach them something for an hour? For me, personally, that’s too wishy-washy of a feeling for me to go home and feel good about myself.”