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Learn along with us as we examine the state of education in Iowa and the various issues it faces today.

Who is it all for?

Illustration by Josie Fischels

There are students in every public school in Iowa who are making their teachers proud and continuing to thrive despite a system that faces many challenges today.

Landon Stanley, sophomore, Marshalltown High School

Part of his high school's Extended Learning Program since 5th grade when he moved to Marshalltown, Landon has participated in the science fair since 7th grade. Last year, he was selected to be an observer at the International Science Fair in Atlanta, Georgia.

Landon is particularly interested in microbiology, and his projects have included exploring water decontamination methods. He also performs poetry readings and has made it to national competitions.

"I think that these types of opportunities have definitely taught me determination," he said. "I think that they've broadened my horizons, because without these opportunities I would not know anything about poetry, I would definitely not know anything about soils and wildlife, such as Envirothon.... I think that these opportunities are honestly an honor, because without them I really don't know where my education would be at."

Mekayla Abercrombie, senior, Marion Independent School District

A traditional public school environment doesn’t work for every student. Many schools have worked to provide alternative programs, like the COMPASS Alternative Center, a voluntary high school program designed to provide alternative education for students in grades 11-12 in the Linn-Mar and Marion Independent School Districts.

A selfie of Mekayla Abercrombie
Mekayla Abercrombie
Mekayla Abercrombie is a COMPASS student and a senior on track to graduate in 2023.

Mekayla, a COMPASS student, is on track to graduate in March 2023, a little earlier than her classmates. She says she feels COMPASS allowed her to be successful with her stressful schedule, which has her working from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. after school gets out.

"Right after school I would have to go straight to work, and once I got home I was tired, so I couldn't get straight home and start doing my homework that I had," she said. "So I would try to get it done in the next class, and then I would miss assignments that we were doing at the moment which would get me more and further behind."

Before COMPASS, she was told she had a 50/50 chance of graduating on time. Now, she says she feels comfortable and capable of catching up on classwork.

"I actually loved it. They were very flexible, loving, caring. I felt safe. They helped me with a lot," she said.

After graduation, Mekayla plans to become a nurse.

Memphis Jess, senior, Bellevue High School

Memphis Jess is a senior at Bellevue High School in Northeastern Iowa.
Memphis Jess is a senior at Bellevue High School in Northeastern Iowa.

Memphis excels at bringing people together. He's a member of National Honor Society and Future Business Leaders of America, and, as president of the student council this year, he leads a large group of students to plan school events from school dances to fundraisers and highway cleanup. Through a school program called Bellevue Big, a subdivision of Iowa Big, Memphis also participates in school and community projects to help educate and benefit the town.

"I would love to host a charity basketball game for cancer," he said. "I would love to have some type of charity basketball event where the community as a whole comes together to surround one cause and raise as much money as possible."

As an openly gay student, Memphis has experienced challenges in Bellevue, a small town of about 2,100 people. Being in leadership roles has helped him feel empowered, though he still intends to move away from Iowa to study political science after graduation.

"I have my voice heard now, and the last few years I've been able to have my voice heard," he said. "I hope to be a voice for maybe the younger gay kid that's in 4th grade that's watching me talk at a school assembly, and they know internally that something is different with them, but they look up to me and know they aren't going to be discriminated against and that I can be a fighter for them."

Nathan Deeds, junior, Williamsburg High School

Nathan Deeds is a junior at Williamsburg High School.
Nathan Deeds is a junior at Williamsburg High School.

This past summer, Nathan traveled to California to compete in the 2022 Braille Championship Finals and emerged victorious as the national Braille Champion for his age group. He has also received the Harley Fetterman Award for Excellence in Charts & Graphs.

Nathan, who is blind, came to Iowa when he entered 7th grade. He uses a screen reading program on his laptop to participate in schoolwork and a Braille display allows him to download books for school so he can read them in Braille. He also works with a private instructor who goes with him to practice navigating in larger cities, like taking public transit.

"I've had a lot of teachers who have been very nice to work with and are very willing to make sure everything is working for me in their classes so I can have equal access to what's going on in all of these classes, and that's really great," he said.

After graduation, Deeds wants to become a certified public accountant.

Payton Wright, 7th grader, South Hamilton Middle School in Jewell

Payton has worked on an innovative recycling program as part of the talented and gifted program to help reduce plastic pollution in school.

"We're trying our best to try and make solutions. It may not be for the whole entire world, but as long as it's a difference, we'll still try to make it," Payton said.

Sia Smith, senior, Urbandale High School

Sia Smith is a senior at Urbandale High School and a member of CORE.
Sia Smith is a senior at Urbandale High School and a member of CORE.

Sia is a member of the Community of Racial Equity (CORE). The organization's mission is "Community. Advocacy. Liberation.” Growing up, she said she was one of only four Black students in her grade.

"We [didn't] talk about race at our schools prior to CORE, and it's very evident, when we all finally did come together and talked about race, it was like 'Oh my God, you're having the same issues I am. You're having racism happen to your face, just like I am. We need to do something about it.'" she said. "It meant a lot to me to know I'm not the only person having this issue and that we can try and fix it in our school district."

Through community events, volunteer experiences and weekly meetings, CORE aims to create a place where people can feel comfortable with and celebrate their culture.

"It's given me a platform to speak my opinion and also uplift other people who aren't exactly comfortable speaking."

Trenton Swenson, senior, Riceville High School

One of the biggest challenges Iowa schools face is a shortage of teachers, and many districts have started programs designed to grow their own. Trenton is one of those future teachers.

Trenton is an athlete in football, basketball and track and participates in band and choir. He’s on the student council, in the National Honor Society and serves as President of FFA. He's a student rep on the school board, and in addition to all of this, he's also working as a paraprofessional in a 5th-grade classroom as the first step in his journey to becoming a teacher.

"As I've gotten into high school, I've noticed a lot of teachers have helped me out," he said. "I feel that the best way to return that kindness is to do it myself and pass it down to the next generation to inspire people just as I have been inspired."

Yessenia Alvarez Zamora, senior, Marshalltown High School

Part of her school's Extended Learning Program for high achieving students since elementary school, Yessenia has had the opportunity to come up with science fair projects, since 7th grade.

"The idea of a science fair was something that I always enjoyed from seeing it on television and stuff like that, but when I heard that there was actually a program here that was willing to hear my own ideas and develop into it, it was very exciting," she said.

Her projects have explored ways for soil to better retain water to grow food, even during drought.

She was able to apply her research to a paper for the World Food Prize Symposium. Her projects have also been entered in national competitions and showcased in a virtual exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

In the future, Yessenia plans to go to college either at Grinnell College or Iowa State University to pursue a career in the medical field.