WATERLOO — Walter Jr. and Benji Cunningham got celebrity treatment Thursday when they arrived at the school named for their father.
Dr. Walter Cunningham School for Excellence rolled out the red paper “carpet,” which was lined with kindergarten and first-grade students holding signs welcoming them. As the brothers approached, the kids sang together: “We are family. Welcome back to Cunningham.”
The pair was in town to speak earlier in the morning at the Waterloo Schools Foundation’s eighth annual Sparking Academic Excellence Breakfast, where $13,185 in Innovative Teaching Grants were awarded to 12 teachers. Afterwards, the two went on to tour Cunningham school, read to classes and be part of an assembly — as planned.
But they didn’t expect the welcome.
“I’m overwhelmed, but also overjoyed,” said Benji. “I got out and saw that line. The first word that came to mind: future.”
“First word for me was joy, pride,” said Walter. “Because obviously it recognizes a legacy, particularly in relationship to my dad.”
Benji is a pharmaceutical salesman who lives in Omaha, Neb., where he serves on numerous community boards, leads Boy Scouts and coaches youth sports. Walter, who splits his time between Chicago and New Hampshire, is director of the gospel ensemble at Dartmouth College and founder of the music recording company One Soul in Prosperity Productions.
Their father worked as a teacher, principal and deputy superintendent in Waterloo Community Schools for three decades. He was Iowa’s first black high school principal when he started the job at East High School in 1976.
Walter Sr. died in 2000 at age 58. The school bearing his name opened in the fall of 2002 at 1224 Mobile St., replacing Grant Elementary.
During the breakfast at the Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center, Walter talked about the drive of their parents. Walter Sr. pursued a doctorate degree after being diagnosed with polymyositis, the rare degenerative disease that claimed his life 13 years later. Their mother, Ruth, was a nurse who went back to school in the 1970s when the family had four young boys at home.
“She was a status quo breaker,” said Walter, issuing a challenge to the educators at the breakfast. “How can you as educators be about breaking status quo with the many students you come into contact with?” He said it is about setting the tone, the stage and the standard for those students.
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Benji said great teachers communicate that they believe in you, are here for you and are fighting for you.
“A teacher is someone who guides you down the right path,” he said. “A teacher’s a mentor, someone who’s a great example of character.”
Good teachers helps students prepare for life, said Benji, recalling some of his at the former Central High School. However, he added, “The best teachers were my parents Dr. Walt and Ruth Cunningham.”
Since the annual breakfast began, teachers have received more than $175,000 in grants from the foundation. The event also serves as a fundraiser and brought in $51,470 — the highest amount in its history, according to Executive Director Emily Hanson.
“We received $6,000 in pledges today,” she said after the breakfast. “The rest of the fundraising came from business sponsorships, individual ticket sales and donations prior to the event.”
Superintendent Jane Lindaman also spoke during the event, touting some district accomplishments.
“We once again reached our highest graduation rate at 84.24 percent,” she said, for the class of 2018. For the class of 2017, “we had our highest five-year graduation rate in history at 88 percent. We really have our sights set on that 90 percent rate, and I see it coming.”
Next fall, Lindaman noted, the Waterloo Career Center will have 14 career and technical education programs with an expected 1,200 high school enrollments between fall and spring semesters. “We are already drawing students from three other districts,” she said, including Cedar Falls, Hudson and Dike-New Hartford by next fall.
When it comes to advanced programming, Waterloo is the only district in Iowa currently offering the two-year International Baccalaureate Diploma, which is available at East and West high schools.
The Waterloo Schools Foundation provides support beyond the teaching grants that has totaled more than $1.3 million over the years. That funding has helped boost the programs she talked about.
“The financial support of the foundation is critical to our success,” said Lindaman. “We still have a lot of work, we know that. But there’s so much going right with Waterloo Schools.”