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WATERLOO — Waterloo Community Schools is reaching new heights, Superintendent Jane Lindaman said Thursday at the Sparking Academic Excellence breakfast.

And the Waterloo Schools Foundation is helping the district to soar. The independent nonprofit organization hosts the annual event at the Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center, where 11 innovative learning grants worth $22,275 were handed out to 15 teachers.

“They’re a catalyst for change in (our) future work,” Lindaman said. She noted the foundation’s help in getting donated hospital beds for the health academy as well as its support in better serving students with special needs who are identified as talented and gifted.

“We’re really on a mission,” said Lindaman. She cited a growing number of high school students taking post-secondary classes, developing partnerships with community businesses and organizations and rising numbers of parents expressing confidence in the district.

Lindaman unveiled the district’s most recent indicator of academic growth — the class of 2015’s graduation rate exceeding 80 percent. Just above 74 percent in 2014, the rate reached its prior highest point of 79.2 percent in 2006.

“We have finally, finally broken (that) threshold of students who are graduating in four years,” she said. “The state of the district is awesome, and we couldn’t do it without the Waterloo Schools Foundation’s support.”

Keynote speaker Kyven Gadson, former East High School wrestler and recent Olympic team trials semifinalist, applauded the achievement and encouraged attendees not to fear change.

Gadson did when he moved to Waterloo and enrolled in Logan Middle School. “Now I stand here at a little less than 24 years old, I embrace change.”

It started in ninth grade when Gadson’s father held him out of wrestling following a C+ grade in biology. “But it wasn’t my C+, it was my lack of effort, and that was unacceptable in our house,” he said.

“I wanted to be an undefeated four-time champion. I wanted to be perfect,” he said. “That didn’t happen.” He did win twice in the state championship.

Although Gadson was an NCAA champion, three-time All-American and Big 12 champion at Iowa State, a perfect season still eluded him. “But, I continually made progress.”

Despite falling short April 10 at the Olympic trials, “I’m going to continue my dream,” said Gadson. “The journey is about progress.” He advised, “Continue to make changes and decisions that will bring you closer to your dreams.”

Grant winners were Stephanie Peters at Lowell Elementary for Robot Coding; Marsha Watters at West High for Standing Desks; Stephanie McCombs at Bunger Middle for Circuit Scribe; Tonya Ryan, Jill Wachal and Sherri Peterson at Elk Run Preschool for Portable PE; Christine Winstead at West High for GMO Investigation and Fish DNA Barcoding and Sequencing; Lawrence Boney at Kingsley Elementary for Aerospace Explorers; Stacey Snyder at Orange Elementary for Plant QR Codes; Nick Kuhle at Hoover Middle for Standing Desks; and Kari Jo Ruden and Nicole Johnson at Lincoln Elementary for Drums Alive.

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Courier

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