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Appropriately on a steamy day inside the main entrance, flooring crews are laying down the last colorful tiles that will greet students inside the new Virtual Academy in southeast Cedar Rapids. Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math make up the letters of the acronym for the district’s newest magnet school. Coordinator Cassidy Reinken can hardly contain her enthusiasm, “ Everything’s really happening fast and it’s so exciting and the kids are excited and the community is excited. “ Reinken shows floor plan drawings to guests and explains that parents shouldn’t expect to see desks in neat long rows, because the blueprint for the future is open spaces with room to work on group projects, do individual reading and perhaps an art creation class off to the side. She says STEAM is all about answering the question ‘ How will I ever use this class in real life?’ The 380 Kindergarten through 5th grade students will focus on problem solving and real world hands on learning. Reinken points out there are even ceiling tiles intentionally missing in the entryway to encourage students to think about the beams and pipes and how the building is constructed, “It’s the power in giving students voice and choice in their learning and how it can increase student engagement, decrease behaviors, increase proficiency in tests and really allow them to be more successful.” Reinken concedes there are still people who don’t fully grasp why education has to change. She says the standards and requirements of basic learning are the same, but the delivery of the material is different. Reinken says we are well past the days when students graduated high school and went directly to a factory job. She says changing technology and a changing world require innovation and taking a fresh look at how students learn best. While budget battles over education have been especially divisive in the legislature this year, Reinken says fortunately a number of grants have helped fund both equipment and programs for STEAM and she hopes future debate will never slow the school. For right now, it’s full STEAM ahead at the new Johnson Academy and the students, “ I think they’re going to be more engaged and be more interested in what they’re doing and they’ll be able to make connections between what they’re learning and the real world. So today we might be teaching science and math at the same time and we’re learning about fractions, when we’re learning about composting, because you need to compost a one to two ratio. It’s helping them see the world is really all connected. “ Virtual Academy celebrates the first day of school on August 24th. Neighborhood students are automatically eligible, but other parents who would like to see their kids involved can register for a lottery to have their child considered starting early next year.
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