IOWA CITY, Iowa — A crowd of almost 50 adults — an even mix of whites and people of color — heard Iowa City Community School District Superintendent Stephen Murley pledge to be “deliberate” in handling the impending implementation of the district’s diversity policy on Thursday night.
It was a chorus the administrator returned to frequently as he answered questions about the policy and the attendance area development process underway in the district. It’s part of leaders’ efforts to devise ways to build and improve facilities while also balancing the population of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches — a measure of poverty — among schools.
Members of Iowa City’s Black Voices Project, Family-to-Family Partnership Program and the Coalition for Racial Justice organized the meeting as an opportunity for families to offer their perspectives and learn more about the attendance zones for elementary schools and how they are likely to change starting in the 2015-16 school year. School board members are set to view proposals at a board meeting Tuesday.
“There has not been a lot of representation of our African-American parents,” said Royceann Porter, who helped coordinate the session, about other district meetings regarding the policy.
Many of the questions and comments offered Thursday centered on whether the policy will achieve its goal of enabling more students to be successful by not having such large gaps of learners with financial needs among schools. Attendees asked whether staff members and specialized programs designed to help struggling students will be available at new buildings.
“It’s certainly an opportunity to make sure that programs follow kids,” Murley said. “There’s an opportunity to ensure that these students see familiar faces as they make that transition.”
Porter and Henri Harper, who also helped organize the event, were among those willing to address the topic of race and its relationship to the diversity policy and changing boundaries.
“Us as a black family feel that the district is not listening to us … I think at some point you have to listen to what the families want for their kids to be successful,” said Harper, who hoped the meeting would provide more information for residents.
Harper called on the district to hire more teachers of color and create programming to support students of color as opposed to shifting populations based on socioeconomic status. He said that taking students out of neighborhood schools, with peers whom they know, could be detrimental.
“Regardless of where you put them, and that’s all kids, if you don’t give them the support system they need, you’re going to create more problems,” Harper said. “If you don’t understand the population of kids you’re working with, we’re all going to struggle.”
A few members of Iowa City’s school board attended the meeting. Murley said the gathering went well in part because it was a chance to hear from a diverse group of individuals.
“Any opportunity we have to answer questions is great for us,” he said.
Angie Lilly, a woman of color who has daughters in first and fifth grades at Wood Elementary in Iowa City, said parents need to be willing to get involved but district administrators also need to invite their input on these issues. Lilly described herself as “indifferent” regarding the policy and able to see the upsides as well as why some “people are going to be hurt by it.”
At Wood, where Lilly is vice president of the parent-teacher organization and used to be a classroom aide, she said that means providing information in many languages as well as going to neighborhoods to speak to parents.
“I think it’s definitely a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t stop now,” Lilly said of Thursday’s meeting, held at The Spot, 1030 Cross Park Ave., near Wood Elementary. “(Some parents) don’t know where their voices are heard. It’s limited.”
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