Through an ingenious community development program called Community Heart & Soul, the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque (CFGD), RSC’s Iowa Hub anchor, has worked with numerous communities in Iowa and Illinois to help them achieve their town’s goals and visions. The bedrock of this effort is an intimate collaborative process that pulls together major community stakeholders, such as the local school district. Recently, the RSC team had the honor of visiting with our CFGD partners and a team from the Bellevue School District in Bellevue, Iowa, one of the Community Foundation’s CHS sites. During the visit, both groups showcased how Bellevue School District has worked to sustain and enrich its hometown community.
Tom Meyer, superintendent of Bellevue School District, is an ardent collaborator in the town’s development efforts, and believes that the district shares responsibility to be active in this venture. “I try to emphasize that we are a community school,” Meyer explains. More than just school administrators and staff, Meyer also shares that he encourages students to be active participants in the community’s ongoing efforts, inspiring some to continue this work into college.
“I try to emphasize that we are a community school.”
As the coordinator of Community Heart & Soul at CFGD, Jason Neises has witnessed firsthand how rural communities can rally together to achieve common goals. Neises describes the spirit of the program: “In Heart & Soul, we’re hoping to build people’s perceptions beyond themselves or their small circles. For example, we encourage people to consider how all aspects of the community benefit from a strong local school.” Bellevue was no exception when it came to the importance of having the local school district get involved: “Whenever we do Community Heart & Soul with a new community, every single town says that their schools are an asset, and Bellevue School District really lived up to that,” Neises recalled.
“Every single town says that their schools are an asset.”
Meyer reveals that the Bellevue community is unique for a rural place in that the town and school are both growing rapidly. “A common theme is that a lot of people come back to the area after initially leaving for some time.” As a result, the development group in Bellevue wanted to focus investment in areas that would continue to attract new students and community members.
After the first push to get the CHS efforts going, Neises and Meyer both underscore that the planning committee turned to the town youth and the schools to become even more involved: “65% of the youth interviewed said they’d like to live in Bellevue, and would have no problem doing so if the town offered certain things. The committee then focused their work on securing those requirements to keep people in the town,” Neises details.
As a member of that committee, Meyer reports that Bellevue School District transformed elements of their classroom content to offer innovative and engaging learning options for students to conduct community-minded, personally-relevant classwork. First, the bulk of this new content has been geared toward ensuring students have some career or college preparedness by the time they graduate. Meyer explains, “Every student is required to take at least one college credit class before graduating so they all have some first step into further education or a career field. In fact, the average graduate leaves with 19 college credits.” Relatedly, the school district has also begun partnering with major employers to give students access to career skills, such as their welding program and John Deere certified career class. Second, Meyer happily shares that the district’s different extracurricular organizations are widely renowned: “The district has a very strong Future Business Leaders of America program, with many students getting into the organization’s national conferences annually.” Similarly, the district is locally considered to be a premier small school at judged agricultural contests.
Along with reworking classroom and club offerings, Meyer adds that the district has worked hard to get their students active in the community while in school and even involved in local leadership. Not only have past students designed parks and bike lanes, but also “there is a student council representative on the school board. They’re non-voting, but it gets them involved in the decision making and leadership of the school.”
Yet another innovation in the district was the creation of Bellevue BIG. Inspired by the network of schools around Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Bellevue BIG is a project-based education center in downtown Bellevue that allows students to create and lead passion projects that teach them in-demand skills and fill community needs. Housed in a rehabilitated button factory right on the Mississippi River, Matt Jaeger, a head teacher in the program, describes Bellevue BIG as “an off-site setting for teachers to bring students to work on projects. It gives kids a different opportunity than rural schools normally have.”
“It gives kids a different opportunity than rural schools normally have.”
In the program, students are given the autonomy and trust to pursue their interests through a project, Jaeger adds further that “when kids first start here, I ask them, ‘What makes you upset?’ That leads them to think about projects they could do to improve the school of the community.” Among the many projects students have led, Jaeger details, are beekeeping, making furniture, supporting the local Special Olympics, renovating buildings, and crafting signs for local businesses. One cohort of students’ explorations into aquaponics and fisheries grew into a perennial offering in the districts’ agriculture class that allows students to work with local natural resource officers, explore regional nature preserves, and learn how to market goods to area consumers.
Stories such as this from the Bellevue School District are plentiful across the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque’s service area in northeastern Iowa. By bringing key stakeholders, such as local schools, in rural towns together, Jason and his team are reaffirming and strengthening the bonds between place, people, and education. For Jason too, this harkens back to CFGD’s organizational vision and the driving force compelling their work forward: “Capacity building and community development was a practical start to prove [the Community Foundation’s] use in the community, and now it is our tradition.” As more hometown school districts seek to revolutionize their offerings to students, and re-engage their deep ties to place, the work of the Bellevue School District and the CFGD’s Community Heart & Soul program presents one model to grow forward together.
“Capacity building and community development was a practical start to prove [the Community Foundation’s] use in the community, and now it is our tradition.”
The whole RSC team thanks Jason Neises of CFGD and our new friends at the Bellevue School District for opening their doors to us and sharing so much of their good work.
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