By B. Adam Burke
North Liberty Leader
IOWA CITY– Students who receive free and reduced lunch will be redistributed across the Iowa City school district, according to a new diversity policy passed after its third reading at a Feb. 5 Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) school board meeting. The plan is to also check high school capacity and will set another trigger for building a secondary school.
The policy will guide the district in its bid toward equity in the schools.
Much of the discussion before the 4-3 vote fell on the timing of Superintendent Stephen Murley’s implementation of steps toward the board’s new goals for diversity in the elementary schools versus those of the high schools.
The legality of the policy was called into question when parents sent the diversity policy text to the Iowa Department of Education and implored state officials to weigh in on the occasionally heated community-wide debate. The department of education warned the district about the confidentiality requirements for free and reduced lunch (FRL) participants.
But ICCSD’s legal counsel, attorney Joe Holland, was called forward to speak during the public discussion and he dismissed claims that the state had squelched the board’s policy for the administration.
“It’s a policy, not a plan. There is no plan yet,” Holland said, adding that the plan’s eventual implementation by ICCSD administrators would be reviewed.
From the start, board member Tuyet Dorau opposed the new policy, largely written by the board’s governance committee co-chair Sarah Swisher. Dorau co-wrote a widely-read opinion column with former board member Michael Shaw that called the policy an “insult.”
Shaw spoke at the end of the long community comment section about unintended consequences of the new policy and many in the room agreed when he predicted its implementation would take hard work and effort.
After more board discussion, Dorau moved to drop the capacity language from the policy. That was voted down and Dorau motioned for another amendment to speed the policy timeline for implementation of the diversity plan in the elementary schools down from five years to two years to match the schedule for the two comprehensive high schools.
“We should put an urgent timeline on it,” Dorau said before her second amendment was voted down on similar lines and a final vote passed the new policy unchanged.
For the high schools, the superintendent’s goal is to achieve an FRL difference of less than 10 percent by the 2015-2016 school year. Grades K-8 will be held to the slower schedule– by 2018-2019– and a larger range for FRL rates, at 15 percent above the district average is the maximum allowable difference.
The district FRL average is about 36 percent, but ranges widely from less than six percent to almost 80 percent of students.
With funds available from the passage of the revenue purpose statement, many feel the new school buildings that are promised in a draft of the administration’s facility plans will allow the district to more easily redraw school boundaries.
The ICCSD diversity plans will eventually change the socioeconomic balance around the Iowa City school district, and ICCSD equity director Ross Wilburn thinks that’s a great opportunity for the schools.
Regardless of how community members felt about the board’s new diversity policy, Wilburn said, “(there would continue to be students) facing poverty issues that create barriers to education.”
He had hope for the ongoing diversity discussion, and said the district would continue to support teachers and find creative solutions and resources that are supported by the community.
For DeeAnn Grove, a doctoral candidate in the College of Education at the University of Iowa Department of Educational Policy and Leadership Studies, “The real challenge will be in implementing this policy.”
Grove lives in Coralville and spoke at the ICCSD board’s Feb. 5 board meeting. In an email, she talked about students marginalized across a range of categories, but focused on teachers’ interactions with students of color.
“We have a teaching population that is disproportionally white, middle class and female. These teachers are trying to teach a diverse student population. We have to create an environment in which these teachers can hear how low-income and racial/ethnic minority students and their parents experience ICCSD.”
She called the diversity policy imperfect but a necessary step in the right direction, and added, “We also need to hire more racial/ethnic minority teachers. It is inexcusable that the district continues to claim that they cannot find more qualified racial/ethnic minority teachers to hire.”
Grove hoped the district would engage all K-12 students in the discussion. “The integration of our classrooms should be a student-led process,” she said.
Cap numbers reset trigger for new high school
The administration’s plan will not just check the socioeconomic diversity of the schools as defined by parents’ pocketbooks.
School enrollment will also be checked to see that the superintendent utilizes at least 95 percent of the schools’ capacities before adding onto or building new secondary facilities.
The two comprehensive high schools will be required to be within 10 percentage points of each other regarding capacity and for junior high schools up to a 15 percent gap will be allowed.
With an existing 11 percent FRL difference, West and City High would eventually see some minor change in student distribution, possibly through redistricting, by the 2014-2015 school year at the latest.
Because estimates from 2012 put City High’s capacity at 90 percent and many consider West over its capacity already, it means the district will likely redistribute students to fill seats at an east-side City High that will be full soon too.
City High, by some estimates, only has about 175 open seats and West is overcrowded already. Murley has predicted it will take several years to reach the trigger for a new high school.
And if you’re looking for the one ICCSD school untouched by the new diversity policy, the building where FRL and capacity rates will be unchanged,
that remains Tate High School, where 200 students constitute the second-highest FRL rate of any ICCSD school. An alternative school with career/vocational training, over three-fourths of Tate students receive nutrition assistance.