WATERLOO — The R.J. McElroy Trust is giving the Waterloo Community Schools a grant of $1.5 million over three years to implement a districtwide program of experiential and service learning for students in all grades.
“This is the largest programmatic gift the trust has given,” said Stacy Van Gorp, McElroy’s executive director. “I think that signifies the enthusiasm we feel about the district.”
A $4 million donation over eight years to help fund construction of the Cedar Valley SportsPlex, which opened in 2014, is the only gift from the Waterloo charitable organization that has been larger. On an annual basis, the trust’s grants typically total about $2 million. The district’s grant will average out to a quarter of that giving in the next three years.
Superintendent Jane Lindaman said the new program is intended to be another way that students can learn — often outside of the classroom.
“It is for enhanced opportunities and experiences for our students,” she said. “It’s really a match made in heaven and we’re thrilled that the McElroy Trust is going to support us in this way.”
The program, which will be launched at the elementary school level this fall, will have two prongs: One is “what we call experiential learning,” said Lindaman, where students will be immersed in the community with the idea of giving more relevance to what they’re learning at school. The other piece is service learning, where students will “learn the value of giving back” by volunteering in the community.
“It’s not a new concept, but having it systemic makes this different,” said Lindaman.
Currently, some district students volunteer in the community as part of a class and many have gone on field trips that relate to a topic they’re studying. But, in both cases, it may depend on the initiative of a teacher or school. As a result, some district students could have few opportunities to participate in these kinds of experiences.
“This is about doing things,” said Jim Waterbury, chairman of McElroy’s board of trustees, noting the intent is to “pull kids away from screens. We would like them to get dirt under their fingernails.”
Lindaman called the program intentional and strategic. “It’s really that planned-out, thoughtful approach to a K-12 experience,” she said.
A coordinator for the program will be hired with the grant, which will also cover expenses related to the activities students will do. Lindaman noted officials plan to sustain the program beyond the initial McElroy support. “It is not the intent of the district to only do this three years,” she said.
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A 30-member planning team established in advance of submitting the grant application met with district staff and community members to give shape to the program. Among the participating organizations were Iowa State University Extension, the University of Northern Iowa, the Volunteer Center of the Cedar Valley, and the Boys & Girls Club. “There was quite a broad range of input over months,” said Lindaman.
The team put together a draft that is still evolving. Among those are outdoor, cultural, dining, cooking and intergenerational experiences. Some may take them to university campuses, others may include publishing their own writing or other creative work.
“I don’t know exactly what it will be called,” said Lindaman. “It really is about connecting the dots for kids.”
A series of thematic experiences and service learning is being developed for each grade level in the district. “We’ll take themes and really play them out each year,” she explained. These themes will connect to the standards and benchmarks for learning in each grade, so the activities will not be isolated incidents.
“We believe this will allow teachers to go deeper,” said Lindaman. In the draft, the experiences and service learning have ties to literacy, math, science, social studies, civics, music and fine arts. “It really has a very strong foundation in academic learning.”
Students from different schools or classes may participate in these experiences at different times in the year, but every student across the district will do them in the same grade. These “peak experiences shared by so many kids” will become important touchstones for Waterloo students, predicted Van Gorp.
Waterbury called the grant consistent with “what mattered to Mac,” referring to R.J. McElroy, whose will established the trust in 1965. McElroy, who left home at age 13 and had little formal education, eventually settled in Waterloo and founded Black Hawk Broadcasting Co. The radio station KWWL hit the airwaves in 1947 and KWWL TV began operating in 1953, among the stations the company grew to include.
“He hoped that someday he would help kids get some of the experiences he never did,” said Waterbury. “He had a real soft spot for Waterloo Schools.”
Waterbury noted that the trust’s board likes to fund projects that will be sustainable and make a difference in the community — which they think will be the case with the district’s new program.
“Being able to use (McElroy’s) money to perpetuate that kind of idea is appropriate,” he said. “You never know, but we think he’d probably like this.”