McKinley Matters: Magnet school (and its students) create new world of learning
The Gazette. Molly Duffy. March 23, 2020.

CEDAR RAPIDS — Between gulps of chocolate milk, Jack Pedron leaned back in his desk chair to whisper to a classmate in Andrea Velasquez’s seventh-grade language arts class.

“Are you coming to Kindness Club today?” he asked another seventh-grader while other students finished taking a reading diagnostic test on laptops.

Kindness Club consists of about a dozen students. The students compile kind notes to other students and their teachers, and set a weekly kindness mission — like complimenting a stranger or doing something nice for their parents.

Jack started the group in sixth grade, among a small group of friends, and this year it became an official club at McKinley Middle School.

Students have been the drivers behind most of the options for extracurricular activities at the middle school — which this academic year became McKinley STEAM Academy and a magnet school — Principal Jason Martinez said.

Jack, perhaps more than anyone else, seems to have been involved in them all.

He was a few minutes late to class on the second-to-last day before classes let out for spring break and several days before the spread of coronavirus extended the break until at least April 13.

On what would become one of the last normal days of the school year, Jack was carrying two notebooks, four books, a metal case for his trumpet and a bag filled with school breakfast — a turkey-and-cheese “roll-up,” bread, orange juice and a small carton of chocolate milk.

He pulled open the classroom’s heavy door and peered inside around 7:55 a.m., propping it open with his foot. He smiled, pushing his glasses up on his round face, and eagerly raised a hand to wave hello.

McKinley is one of the latest magnet schools — a status that allows any student, regardless of address, to enroll in the public school through a random lottery — to open in the Cedar Rapids Community School District, which since 2015 has converted five of its schools into themed magnet schools.

McKinley, as well as nearby Johnson Elementary, integrates STEAM — science, technology, engineering, art and math — throughout its curriculum.

“We think our magnet schools will drive improvement faster than regular school models, and provide different opportunities to drive that in schools,” said Adam Zimmermann, district executive director of middle level education. “ ... We think that we’re going to achieve those same ‘Future Ready’ goals in a way that’s faster and different.”

To that end, McKinley students have visited Mercy Medical Center, across the street, to learn about health care professions and taken trips to the Cedar Rapids Police Station to learn about law enforcement jobs. They can learn to code, study the history of music as a tool of self-expression or design a weather lab.

“I’ve never worked at a school that has so many offerings rather it be before school, after school or during the day, and in sports, academics, STEAM-related, literacy or simple student interests,” Martinez said.

Next school year, McKinley’s administration plans to introduce focus areas for students to choose from — medical sciences, digital arts and design, informational technology and engineering.

“So you could go up to an eighth-grader. ‘What are you majoring in?’ ‘I’m majoring in medical sciences,’” Martinez said. “The hope is these kids have this really firm foundation going into high school.”

On top of heading up the Kindness Club — also known as the Be Nice Business Club online — Jack plays tennis, performed in McKinley’s musical, is in the Chess Club, and has weekly one-on-one trumpet lessons at school.

After language arts that day, he had class in the library’s “maker space,” where a substitute teacher had students play Ping-Pong. Then he headed to vocal class, where an exasperated but patient teacher, Avery Mossman, tried to wrangle a class of 55 students into singing a medley of “Grease” songs from behind a piano.

At Kindness Club, seventh-grader Sandler Strait leaned back in his chair as students called out compliments and said: “Mr. Mossman is the best vocal teacher I’ve ever seen.”

“Say that again,” Jack’s math teacher, Mark Kenny, said, as Velasquez, the language arts teacher, wrote down the compliment. “That’s a good one.”

While Jack thinks of being kind as his job now, he wants to be a crime scene investigator when he grows up. His favorite thing at McKinley is a forensics class that Anne Deutmeyer, a school resource officer with Cedar Rapids police, teaches after-school on Tuesdays.

There, he gets to study shoe impressions, see how to dust for fingerprints and learn what deoxyribonucleic acid can reveal about a crime.

“I can’t wait until next Tuesday,” Jack said as he and Deutmeyer finished looking for clear fingerprints on a plastic water bottle after a meeting last month.

“I hope you’re not too disappointed, honey,” she told him. Moments later, as he left the classroom, she added: “I would love to be in his world.”

Spring Break for Jack was supposed to mean a trip to Paris.

Instead, he spent most of the week at home, playing on the computer, exercising and video chatting with friends out-of-state. He and his mom went shopping Thursday to restock on essential supplies.

“So far, so good,” Jack said Friday, the day that should have been his last away from McKinley. “Yesterday I rented a movie from Redbox, called ‘Spies in Disguise.’ Yesterday was Thursday, right? The week has gone by so fast.”

He sounded chipper, and he was excited to take a call from a reporter. As he carried his home phone upstairs, he whispered to his mom, Nicole Pedron, “I’ll take it from here.”

He feels conflicted about school being out until April 13, an order from the governor in an effort to stem spread of coronavirus.

“I’m part happy because I don’t have to wake up to an alarm at 6:25 a.m.,” he said. “And part sad because I won’t be able to see my friends and teachers.”

Until he can go back to school — and his Kindness Club — Jack plans to keep spreading kindness on YouTube. He has a channel set up and said he’s mapping out his first few videos.

“I’m going to be working from home,” he said.

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