SIOUX CITY | Twenty kindergartners stood on an alphabet-themed rug on a Tuesday afternoon trying to form a triangle with a stretchy, multi-colored band of fabric.
"You have to go diagonal," Teddy Rice, dressed in a Spiderman t-shirt, instructed a boy wearing navy blue near one of the triangle's vertices.
After helping to reposition several more of his classmates, teacher Kristina Mozak asked Teddy, "Is it looking more like a triangle?"
"Yeah," the six-year-old conceded.
Just moments before the activity, Teddy and his classmates were contorting their bodies into lines and shapes during the arts integrated math lesson at Hunt Elementary School, which follows the North Carolina Arts Council's A+ (Arts Plus) Schools Program.
Teddy, who first demonstrated interest in playing the violin after attending a concert shortly before his second birthday, transferred from the elementary school in his Leeds neighborhood to the Hunt specialty school, which weaves dance, drama, music and visual art into the curriculum, before the start of the 2017-2018 school year.
"He's doing great. He's coming back and asking questions," Lucas Rice said of his son, who began playing the violin at age 3, enjoys building sculptures from items found in his family's recycling bin and is the lone boy in his dance class. "He certainly seems like he's grasping the material well."
Specialty schools, more commonly known as magnet schools, are fairly new to the Sioux City Community School District. Five of the district's 11 elementary schools are now specialty schools. In addition to Hunt, they are: Morningside, a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) school; Irving, a dual language school; Spalding Park, an environmental sciences school; and Loess Hills, a computer programming school.
Except for Loess Hills, the district's specialty schools closely follow the national magnet schools model.
Enrollment figures suggest the Sioux City schools are accomplishing their intended purpose.
Roughly 43 percent of students who transferred from one elementary to another within the district in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years, moved to a specialty school, according to a Journal analysis of district data.
Between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 academic year, total transfers to the five schools jumped about 52 percent, from 251 to 383. The specialty schools accounted for about 42 percent of the district's overall 900 in-district transfers to elementary schools last year.
Loess Hills led the way among the five specialty schools, receiving 170 transfer students during the two-year period, while Hunt received the fewest number of transfers, 58. Of the specialty schools, Morningside saw the largest increase in transfer students, 55, between 2015-16 and 2016-17.
DeVos strong proponent
On its website, Magnet Schools of America (MSA), a national nonprofit professional education association, touts magnet schools as the "single largest form of public school choice."
According to MSA, 4,340 magnet schools, which focus on themes such STEM, fine and performing arts, career and technical education and world languages, educate more than 3.5 million students of various socioeconomic backgrounds, races and academic achievement levels. The association says the schools exceed state standards in many cases.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a strong proponent of school choice, has praised magnet schools for their success and commitment to quality. But this specialized approach to education has also come under fire from critics, who note that popular magnet schools, some of which use test scores or a lottery system to admit students, are reserved for the best and brightest. A longer commute to and from school for students and a narrow curriculum are other rebukes lobbed by opponents.
Sioux City Superintendent Paul Gausman said the district saw rallying around specialty concepts for instructional delivery as a way to teach the core subjects in an engaging manner, while helping older buildings like Hunt, which became a specialty school in 2015, retain students as new school buildings opened.
"We're not doing that program at (Hunt) to make more ballerinas, rock stars and opera singers. We're doing it because the naturally engaging nature of the arts are a great way to learn math, science, social studies and language arts," said Gausman, who emphasized that students attending the district's regular elementary schools are receiving the same quality education as their peers in specialty schools.
Magnet school resurgence
Magnet schools emerged in the 1970s as a way to desegregate U.S. public schools by offering specialized courses.
Beth Van Meeteren, director of the Regents' Center for Early Developmental Education located on the University of Northern Iowa's campus, said magnet schools have grown in number in the wake of the No Child Left Behind Act, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002.
The Act required all public school students in grades 3-8 to be tested annually in reading and math. As a result, some districts stripped down art and music instruction to spend classroom time drilling students on reading and math.
"This testing takes up a lot of teachers' time, because some kids need to be tested every single week. Lots of things get cast aside for that to happen," Van Meeteren said.
Van Meeteren speculates that some districts might be using the specialty school model as a way to show parents, some of whom may be considering home or private schooling, that their child can receive a "holistic education" in the public school system.
Lucas Rice, a priest at St. Thomas Orthodox Church, said he and his wife, Nicole, a nurse who majored in vocal performance, considered homeschooling Teddy before finding out about Hunt's special curriculum on the district's website.
After researching the Arts Plus model on the Internet and touring Hunt, the Rices were convinced that their son would benefit from such instruction. They filled out a form, turned it in and Teddy's transfer was approved.
If space is available at a particular school, the district allows students to transfer. There are currently no academic admission standards that students need to meet to gain admission.
Leslie Schrier, a University of Iowa College of Education associate professor with experience in dual language magnet schools in Columbus, Ohio, said magnet schools can create a "tricky" enrollment situation for a school district. She said magnet schools became so popular in Columbus that a lottery system was established to ensure students were fairly admitted.
According to Schrier, further complications with magnet schools arise when students move from elementary school to middle school. If the district's middle schools aren't equipped to help students advance further in a particular area of study, she said the students become "highly frustrated." She said magnet schools across the country, particularly those specializing in dual language, have closed as a result.
"It's just an awful situation because they've developed the students to a certain level. If (the students) are not allowed to continue on, it just dies," she said.
Gausman said nearly all of the district's elementary specialty concepts "blend very well" into the middle schools' STEM exploratory programs. He also noted that the district has taken steps to continue the dual language program from Irving Elementary to North Middle and North High schools.
Innovative learning opportunities
Foram Gor said her 10-year-old son, Nirmai, and six-year-old daughter, Jaini, transferred from Nodland/Sunnyside Elementary School to Morningside's specialty school because she felt they needed to be challenged to "think out of the box."
Gor said her children enjoy the creative, hands-on learning environment that the STEM school offers.
"Not a single day do I have to tell them, 'It's a school day,' and they say, 'No,'" she said. "They're looking forward to going because they learn so much in school."
On a Monday afternoon, first-graders at Morningside sang a song about Wanda the Witch to the tune of "She'll be Coming Around the Mountain." Then, teacher Becky Gaul asked the students to engineer animals for the character to brew in her kettle.
Jaini Gor imagined a jaguar, which she drew on a piece of paper and carefully colored with orange and black crayons. She then used that plan to construct the animal from marshmallows and a chocolate chip granola bar.
"It's going to be so good," she beamed, before flipping over her drawing and writing a sentence about the jaguar.
Gaul, who utilizes an engineering process in her classroom, said she's constantly posing questions to get her students to think at a higher level.
"It's just a plan of action that they go through. They're always questioning and trying to plan and trying to improve," she said.
Foram Gor said she thinks the district needs more specialty schools like Morningside so all of the district's children can take advantage of the innovative learning opportunities that her children have.
"Look at your child. They have a special ability. Give them a platform to explore it," she said.
CHEROKEE, Iowa | John Weaver headed to bed on Thursday night as the wind howled about his farm near Sutherland, Iowa.
His dad, Wade Weaver, had given him a choice of jobs for Friday, a day off from school.
I found John Weaver in a Case-IH 1688 combine. He stopped in one of John Barnes' fields east of Highway 59, between Cherokee and Larrabbee, Iowa.
"Dad said I could either do this (combine corn) or haul manure," John Weaver said. "I picked this."
He had his reasons.
"When you haul manure, you're on a tractor that doesn't have a cab. When you combine corn, you're in here. Plus, I like to run the combine."
As snow flurries danced in the 20-something windchill this gray morning, Weaver kept warm in the cab, harvesting corn in what's become his favorite time of year. The South O'Brien High School senior piloted the combine east and west through the Barnes field, checking on yields that settled in the 150-bushel per acre range.
One day earlier, Weaver joined South O'Brien High School junior Eva Dau in harvesting corn west of Paullina, Iowa, moving through the 10-acre tract that the high school's FFA chapter has planted and harvested for the past 21 years. The parcel is divided equally: Five acres of corn, five acres of soybeans.
"The corn yesterday was pretty dry," Weaver said. "We planted several varieties and they came in at anywhere between 170 and 210 bushels."
"In some spots, it reached 208 bushels," Dau added. "And in one spot, it was anywhere between 99 and 120 bushel."
Dau echoed Weaver's sentiments, saying the test plot got ample rain, but well after pollination. August showers helped push soybean yields to around 60 bushels per acre.
Paul Kassel, an Iowa State University Extension crop specialist based in Spencer, noted that soybean yields vary from 55 to 62 bushels per acre and corn yield generally range from 175 to 195 bushels per acre across the eastern section of Northwest Iowa. Kassel estimated that 95 percent of the soybeans have been harvested, while corn acres are about 40 percent cleared.
"Forty percent and going fast," Kassel said.
Dau said his family finished their beans early last week and jumped quickly into corn, taking a break late Thursday as high winds, gusts topping 50 miles per hour, swept in from the Dakotas and dropped temperatures 30 degrees by Friday morning.
"We stopped as we're afraid of fire in this wind," said Dau, a junior who intends to study diesel mechanics at Iowa Lakes Community College someday.
Weaver predicts he'll land at Iowa Lakes to study diesel mechanics next fall. He said he'd like to find a job in the ag sector around home at some point, one that offers him a chance to spend time working with his dad each spring and fall.
The South O'Brien FFA test plot serves as an educational tool and a fundraiser for the chapter. Students use dozens of free seed varieties from local dealers and compute season-ending yield totals in a class report. After harvesting the grain with the use of donated equipment (like the Daus' combine) class members store the grain for free at the First Cooperative Association in Paullina while deciding when and how much to sell.
Proceeds, according to longtime adviser Eric Kumm, help the FFA unit pay for additional expenses related to state and national leadership conferences, as well as for teams that compete in state and national contests. Leftover funds assist with district, state and national FFA dues.
SIOUX CITY | It's been a similar story in Sioux City Council elections dating back more than a decade.
A candidate finishes fourth or fifth in the primary election, then edges his or her way into the top three in the general election, securing a seat on the council.
Former Councilman Keith Radig did it twice, finishing fifth in the 2009 primary and fourth in 2013, then ascending to third in the general elections both years, when the top three finalists won seats. Before him, former Councilman Jim Rixner made the jump from fourth in the 2005 primary to third in the general election.
This year, the three challengers looking to unseat three incumbent council members are hoping to make a similar leap from the primary to the general election.
But they'll face an uphill battle to do so.
In recent history, the chasm between the top three and the bottom three candidates going from the primary into the general election has never been quite so wide.
This year's Oct. 10 primary narrowed the field of candidates vying for three open council seats from nine to six. Incumbents Dan Moore, Alex Watters and Pete Groetken were the three top vote recipients, respectively, finishing ahead of first-time candidates Denny Quinn, Doug Waples and Jake Jungers.
The primary eliminated challengers Nick Davidson, John Olson and Brett Watchorn from the race.
Each of the three incumbents finished with a resounding lead over the rest of the field. Groetken, who came in third with 1,871 votes, received more than Quinn (608), Waples (603) and Jungers (531) combined -- finishing more than 1,200 votes ahead of fourth place. Moore and Watters received 2,198 and 1,968 votes, respectively.
Despite the low 7.79 percent turnout for the primary, the gulf between third and fourth place is uniquely large this year. In 2013, the last election when three seats were up, third-place candidate Doug Batcheller finished 276 votes ahead of fourth-place Radig, 1,739 to 1,463. Radig then surpassed Batcheller in the general election, finishing with 804 more votes.
In 2009, third-place Jim Rixner carried a 409-vote lead over fourth-place candidate Ian Rappolt: 1,341 to 932. Radig, who would go on to beat them both in the general election, placed fifth in the primary with 871 votes.
In 2005, Rixner finished in the primary only 67 votes back of third-place finisher Karen Van De Steeg -- 1,816 to 1,749 -- before beating her by 240 in the general election with a third-place finish.
In interviews with The Journal over the past two weeks, all three challengers have acknowledged it will be a challenge to unseat the current incumbents, but they remain undeterred.
"We came in sixth in the primary, but we're 77 votes away from fourth place and, obviously, a little bit a ways from third, but the primary could be different results," Jungers said.
Quinn said he plans to do a lot of door-knocking in the next few weeks to make up the deficit.
Likewise, the incumbents have not taken their resounding finishes for granted. Moore said he is wary of thinking too much about his first-place finish following the Oct. 10 primary.
This election also presents the opportunity to become the first in years to see a pair of councilmen -- Moore and Groetken -- win second terms. (Watters, the third incumbent, is seeking his first full term after being appointed in February to fill the final 10 months of Radig's second term. Radig resigned in January to take a seat on the Woodbury County Board of Supervisors.)
Sioux City Council candidates seeking re-election have experienced mixed results over the past decade-and-a-half. Until Oct. 10, an incumbent in one of the council's three-seat election years had not received the most votes in a primary or general election for more than a dozen years.
Radig's re-election in 2013 came in the same year that two other councilmen opted not to seek re-election. Two council members also called it quits in the 2009 election, the year Radig edged out Rixner, the councilman who had held the third seat.
Rixner's third-place finish in 2005 had squashed Van De Steeg's re-election bid, although one incumbent, David Ferris, did win re-election that year.
The 2017 election comes two years after incumbent Councilwoman Rhonda Capron and Mayor Bob Scott handily won re-election to their respective seats in 2015.