Let’s embrace a different NIMBY for the ICCSD

Earlier today a friend asked me a question on facebook. As I answered, I realized that the answer and the question were important, not just as they pertained to that conversation, but as they pertain to our community, the ICCSD, our teachers and our kids:

Jason T. Lewis, I know you are interested in curriculum. Are there others active in the district for whom this might be a focus? Are redistricting and facilities taking up too much bandwidth to get a discussion going about curriculum and assessment?

There are others who are interested for sure, but yes, redistricting and facilities take up almost all the bandwidth in the ICCSD at this point. I’d love to find a way to change that. I’d love to be a part of that change. I’d love to see us focus on what makes us the same (our desire for our kids to have the best possible public education) and not what separates us. I’d love to find a way to engage people in seeking positive change where it counts: in the classrooms, for our kids and our teachers.

It’s strange to me how much time and effort goes into discussing what seems like small scale concerns for our community like redistricting. We have huge focus group sessions for weeks on end to discuss boundaries, but never once have we had a public outcry that warranted a discussion about what’s happening in our classrooms, how challenged our teachers are and how much harder that challenge becomes every year. Each year, the definition for success for our children becomes more and more narrow, as does the margin for creativity and classroom problem solving for our teachers.

Does it matter more where your child goes to school if what your child’s taught once they get there is less than what it should be? My answer would be no, but our community at large seems to answer yes. I wish we were talking about programming all the time in the ICCSD. I wish we were organizing coalitions to lobby Des Moines for increased allowable growth and a real investment in education, and hectoring Washington to use caution with the Common Core, but alas we’re handwringing and distributing leaflets around neighborhoods to preserve walkability, when I fear that for some “walkability” really means NIMBY.

It pains me to think that way. But it’s hard not to after years of hearing these same arguments, thinly reworked over and over again and to diverting us from the pressing realities our kids and teachers face: growing class sizes, encroaching government regulation of what’s taught, and the de facto segregation in our public schools. It’s hard not to be jaded. But I believe we can come together and make positive change because we have to—for our kids’ sake. How we can work together to protect our kids from the real concern: An educational system that moves further and further away from what will serve our kids best and closer and closer to what serves the system the best?

Why don’t the active, engaged parents in the ICCSD take on that challenge? I wish I knew. Are there folks who want to? Yes, but that conversation is repeatedly crowded out by these surface, NIMBY concerns. Again, what does it matter where our kids go to school if what’s taught once they get there isn’t right-headed and in their best interest? It doesn’t. Who wants to work to making sure we stay positive and focused on what matters: Our kids and their education? That’s the kind of NIMBY I can get behind. Who else?


Representative democracy: the Iowa City City Council Race

I had the chance to meet many of the candidates for Iowa City City Council while I was running for school board and I know many of the members of the current council from working together and discussing issues at length. All the council people I know, I know to be good people, with the best interests of their community at heart. The candidates I have met touch those watermarks as well.

So as an interested participant in our representative democracy I’ve ruminated recently on the phrase, “representative democracy,” as in “of the people, by the people, for the people.” I’ve also been listening to American history audiobooks while I walk the dog lately and that’s got me waxing philosophic about the nature of our grand democratic experiment in its beginnings and how we enact those principles now.

As an advocate for the schools I have been a vocal supporter of equity in our classrooms and in our communities. I have also pointed out frequently that the city government bears much historical responsibility for the divides in our community and needs to stand with the schools and the people of Iowa City to build a city that is in its practice the town we want in principle.

And so as I approach my choice for council I’ve asked myself, “Who most represents a vision for Iowa City that I can support, that represents the largest number of shared goals, and offers the promise of a more representative cross-section of our community ?”

While the candidates all, I’m sure, have the best interests of our community in mind, I’m concerned that three of them will largely view that commitment through a similar lens. I respect these folks and appreciate their willingness to serve their community. But perhaps the time has come for Iowa City’s leadership to become more representative of the vibrant, diverse, forward-thinking community it is.

The next step to making Iowa City the community it desires to be in principle but is not in practice is to elect Rockne Cole, Royceann Porter and Kingsley Botchway II this Tuesday. Each of them, as one part of a whole body, will bring the new perspectives we need to understand our whole community.

In Cole, we have a progressive voice with ideas and energy that will force us to reassess ourselves and our community, to truly see what we have done well, but also how we can better match the expectations of a town that is not only a lovely small community, but also the only UNESCO City of Literature in North America, a town that rallies around the shared experiences of spirited high school football games, but also houses a world-class Big 10 university known for its commitment to the arts and academics.

In Porter we have a vocal leader of a community that has historically had no voice in our town. That voice is desperately needed and it needs to come from within. Our town has changed over the last thirty-plus years. We have become more diverse and our leadership must reflect that diversity.

In Botchway we have a man not afraid to become part of the conversation. I met Kingsley several times as our campaign paths crossed. I heard him stump at Democratic committee meetings, Republican committee meetings, picnics, the farmers market, and much more. I was impressed by his intensity and his willingness to listen to all comers and he is another voice that will help balance our diversity conversation.

I don’t agree with all these candidates on every issue. As I choose candidates in this election I’m not as interested in whether or not I agree with them in lock step as I am in whether or not they will be welcome, productive new voices in the difficult conversations we must have as a community if we’re to live out the values we claim as a representative democracy. In Rockne Cole, Royceann Porter and Kingsley Botchway II we have three candidates who will do just that.

Is the diversity policy in jeopardy?

Originally posted on The Assistance :

For those of you who’ve been following along at home, over the past year we’ve had a heated debate in our district about the proposed, and then adopted, diversity policy for the ICCSD. In broad strokes, there are schools in our district where 80% of their students receive free or reduced price lunch and other schools that have 6%. The policy was adopted to help balance those numbers and help the district meet its goal of providing an equitable educational opportunity for every child. Last night at the first full BOE meeting with the new board it seems like the diversity policy met its first challenge to becoming a reality since it passed.

Here are the timelines for the superintendent to show measurable progress toward meeting the goals of the policy as stated in the policy taken directly from the BOE website:

10. Achieve the diversity goals for grades K-8…

View original 897 more words

Some gave all

1989 MHS Show Choir


That man lying down in front of the 1989 Morgantown High School Show Choir, that’s Howard Vollberg. He was the single most important person in my life that wasn’t a family member (that’s me on one knee behind him). He made opportunities for me when I was in high school–All State Choir, musical theater, chamber choir and a lot more. He gave me rides home after extracurricular rehearsals even though he lived almost an hour away. He’s the person who convinced me to go to college. He convinced me to take voice lessons. He made me believe in myself and my talent.

He died the year after this photo was taken, after being shot by a hitchhiker, giving a ride to someone who he thought was in need, as he was on his way home from a choir performance. My heart hurts to think of all the students who never got to have him in their lives. I can’t bear to think sometimes about his wife and two children, and the wonderful husband and father they lost.

My greatest regret in life is that I didn’t have the courage to go to his funeral. But he lives on in me, in everything I’ve done, as I’m sure he does for so many of the kids he mentored.

I still remember the day this photo was taken. I took second place in the soloist judging because I sang with my eyes closed. But he told me it didn’t matter, that I did a great job, that we all did a great job. And we did. And he did.

And when I think about who I am and why, I know he’s a huge part of it and I’m fortunate for that. When you talk to your child’s teacher next, think of Howard Vollberg. That teacher may just be the Howard Vollberg of your child’s life, giving everything so your child can thrive.

He deserves our remembrance and they deserve our deference.

Err in the direction of kindness

This is great advice for graduates, for sure. But it’s also great advice for parents, politicians and just about anyone who calls themselves human. Leave it to a writer to have something worth saying that makes us think.


Here’s an excerpt to whet your appetite:

Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian.  These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).

Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.

So, the second million-dollar question:  How might we DO this?  How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?

Well, yes, good question.

Arts Advocates, Unite!

Originally posted on Alan W. King's Blog:

(PHOTO: Alan King) The D.C. Creative Writing Workshop’s writing club members who placed at the 2013 Parkmont Poetry Competition.

In a previous post, I talked about why poetry matters. Now, with the shift towards STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) curriculum, advancing the arts is more important than ever.

I’m still hellbent on convincing my opponents that arts education is as important as mathematical skills. In fact, while “you can replace some math skills with a calculator,” according to Hal Sparks, “there’s no calculator for human interaction.”

That human connection — which I enjoy as a creative writing instructor and nationally published poet — is, as Hendrik Willem van Loon once put it, a true barometer of what’s going on in our world.

(PHOTO: Alan King) Mark Williams, chair of the Literary Media and Communications department at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, cracks up after hearing Khat’s…

View original 859 more words