Family, Community, and the Future: ICCSD BOE election 2015


The calendar just turned over to 2015. In a few months, our focus will turn toward another election season. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past year and a half considering what role, if any, I can play in the public life of our community. In that time, my roots in this community have deepened and I’ve learned a lot about myself. We’ve welcomed a new mem10339281_10102790994975639_1084586946327798102_ober into our family at home and the challenges that addition brings helped me focus more on what matters most: family, community, and the future.

After a lot of thought, I’ve decided to run for the ICCSD Board of Education again. This time though, I’m planning to do things a little differently. I will accept as little money as possible to finance my campaign. The financing of a school board campaign can be pretty minimal. I estimate that I around $2000 or so to cover the costs of signs, printing and mailings. If I can do it for less, I will. Any funds left at the end of my campaign will be donated to the ICCSD Foundation.

I also encourage you to make monetary donations to the ICCSD Foundation, your school’s PTO/A, PSTO, or even to buy supplies for the schools based on what the teachers, staff and administrators need. I encourage you to do this before donating to my campaign. We’re under the threat of another huge round of cuts if the budget in Des Moines stays as it is. This coming after a year that saw cuts to language, music and sports programming and more in our district. I can’t in good conscience take money for a campaign that may not reach its goal when I know that money could go to better use in our classrooms.

Don’t get me wrong, I want to win and I want to serve our community to the best of my ability. However, I ran before and I know that running and winning are challenging. Discouraging monetary donations may put me at a disadvantage, but hopefully it’s a disadvantage that can be overcome by the message it supports. This election is not about me or my candidacy. It’s about all our children and our schools. It about all our families, our community, and our future.

Win or lose, I want to be part of building a better school district and a better community. I want to hear from the you about the issues that matter. I’ll be out there, ready to listen and prepared to act. I hope we’ll be there together.

Location, Location, Location: let’s move forward with new ideas

A friend asked a question on his Facebook wall regarding the new jr. high and high school boundaries and it got me thinking about what’s wrong with strictly geographic boundaries for schools in the first place. He expressed a concern that I hear pretty often in this regard: Socio-economic balance in our community is a municipality problem, not a schools problem. I agree that our municipal leadership past and present bears a lot of the responsibility and should shoulder a lot of the blame for the socio-economic segregation we have in our community, but the solution won’t come from the Planning and Zoning commissions alone.

The problem with Planning and Zoning committees is the changes that needed to be made there needed to be made 30 or 40 years ago. Now there’s no way to backtrack. It has to be the schools and the city governments working together to fix some stuff that has been allowed to be screwed up for a long, long time.

Does that mean your child should go to a school far away from your home to fix it? No, not necessarily.

In all honesty, geographically based zoning as the single tool used to create socio-economic balance in or schools will always fail. It has failed for decades and it will continue to fail. We need to have new solutions to work in concert with zoning of our schools and our municipalities. Stuff like magnet schools and more focused curricular choices that will allow people choose schools for reasons other than just geography. Our communities are defined by our neighborhood schools and that shouldn’t change, but relying on only one tool to populate our schools has created a system that is segregated along socio-economic lines. That isn’t OK, and it shouldn’t be allowed to continue.

Geography is the shell game. Real estate developers and the other money-making folks who profit from moving the more affluent around need to use geography to get business. In the 50s and 60s, it was the southeast side of Iowa City, neighborhoods like Twain and Wood and Hoover. Now it’s North Liberty, Coralville and other areas where there’s new growth. This is the way it’s always been and it will continue to be that way. But when faced with a system that’s driven by geography, we can fight back against it using geography as our only weapon. We need different tools. And many of the leaders in our municipal and school governing bodies have shown themselves to be adept at say “no” to new ideas, but not very adept and using “no” as a starting point for a more effective yes.

I’m not blaming families and I don’t want anyone to take this as such. Families of every socio-economic background are as much the victims of this system as anyone. Less diverse schools mean less effective learning environments. Our kids are being short-changed because this system has been allowed to perpetuate itself and we have no one to blame but a steady stream of elected officials who have been asleep at the switch for decades.

No matter where you live, we’re all the same at the beginning of every day; we all wake up with the same goals: Try and do the best for our kids. That’s the commonality that connects us all, whether we live in a rented duplex on Taylor Drive or in a brand new home in a new development. The problem actually lies in how we keep trying to solve our problems. Trying to fix socio-economic segregation in our schools and in our community by only moving lines on a map is akin to trying to build a house with only one hammer. It’s just not going to work. You need a whole toolbox full of tools. But for decades our leaders have been trying to get it done with a hammer and nothing else.

We’ve been doing the same things over and over and we continue to fail, we continue to drive wedges through our community and we continue to elect people who are unwilling or unable to make forward-thinking choices and stick by them. We’ve had a lot of great ideas come around and die in committees and during an endless “works sessions” that have provided very few solutions. It’s time for something to change, and since we can’t change the past, we need to change the leaders.

Breaking the law for our students. One Superintendent’s approach.

davenportsuperI read this article this morning from the Davenport school district. Very impressed with this superintendent and the stand he’s prepared to make. It sends a clear message that our students are our most important priority and we should be prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to protect their education. Sometimes you have to break the law to highlight the innate flaws and injustice therein.

What do you think? Would you support this kind of initiative in our school district?

Davenport schools leader vows to break law.

Let’s be clear: The time for real change is now

Whew, that was close. We were headed down a wrong path with those final redistricting maps. Crisis averted…for now.

I want to start with a big thank you to the whole ICCSD board for taking the time and having the courage to ask the district administration to scrap the redistricting maps they brought forward and to come back with maps that offer the chance for better educational outcomes across the district.

I’m not saying the district admins didn’t do their jobs well. They worked hard at tackling the goals of the district’s diversity policy while taking community interest into account. It’s a fine hair to split, no doubt. What we discovered is the goals of the diversity policy can’t be reached by changing boundaries alone. We have to engage different solutions to supplement the tools we tried–and failed–to use to bring about the change we need.

My one critique of what happened on Tuesday is that after the great discussion I don’t think the board gave pointed enough instruction to the administration regarding what they want to see in a new plan for the district. There was talk about expanded programming choice, perhaps expanding on the implementation of magnets schools, perhaps implementing more paired school arrangement like the one being developed by the parents at Coralville Central and Lincoln. But among the final comments were a few recognitions that the reality of implementing the Diversity Policy has shown us the need for flexibility  in how we move it forward. One or two board members talked about being “aspirational” regarding Diversity Policy goals with the next set of maps. But they weren’t specific about what that meant. It’s important that they provide that guidance now because vague direction at this juncture could mean two things to the admins:

1. Do what you can and we’ll take the heat off for now. I don’t think this is what the board intended. “Doing what we can” is just another form of kicking the can down the road. The challenges our teachers and children face in the classrooms are real, and they are impacting students at this very moment. and have been for decades. It’s time to make significant change to make the educational environment in the district more balanced now. I hope the board will make it clear that “Doing what they can” does not mean “just do the least amount necessary.”

Personally, I like this second option better.

2. Give us real change. At the board table the other night several members encouraged Spt. Murley and his team to “hit them with their best shot” at making this right. There was discussion about expanded programming options. I hope they will make it clear to the administration that they expect the “best shot” to be one that goes further. If we can’t reach the goals of the Diversity Policy with redistricting alone, give us more options. Give us changes that can leverage the good this community has to offer against a school district that’s responsive to the needs of every corner of the community. I know Spt. Murley has implemented these kinds of programs in previous positions. Let’s see him open his bag of tricks wide here in the ICCSD.

In my mind, that includes magnets, year-round schools, paired schools, and more curricular opportunities at the secondary level. It also includes strengthened support systems for minority communities in our schools. Members of the African-American community have asked for more people of color in the schools. Let’s work harder on that. Our English Language Learner population has exploded in recent years. Let’s be sure we’re providing them the supports they need in and out of the classroom.

We can do this. I am so proud of the board for taking that important step away from group-think and rubber stamping a bad plan and moving toward taking responsibility and providing leadership. But I encourage them to make sure the administration understand what they’re asking for. And I hope it’s real, dynamic change that will work for all our children.

Tell them what you think:

ICCSD board and admins: We CAN change


I attended a great meeting this morning with folks from Coralville Central and Lincoln. Several Twain parents were there, too. I was really excited by what I heard.

A group of parents from both Coralville Central and Lincoln have gotten together to draft a proposal that would make their two schools paired schools instead of going through with the proposed boundary changes. One school, under their plan, would be K-1st and the other 2-6. Are those the only options? No. But they are working toward something positive.

What excited me was this is the first time I’ve seen parents from different schools get together to consider a solution that would honor the intent of the diversity policy while searching for a more palatable means for their communities.

I’m so impressed that these parents have gotten themselves together, organized and have engaged the other families in their schools with the idea. This is a huge step forward for our district.

The district administration has told me many times that one of the central reasons they are focusing on redistricting to meet the mandates of the diversity policy and not exploring more comprehensive means is the community has told them they don’t want to explore other options.

The meeting I attended today tells me something different. The discussions I’ve had around the community tell me now that we’ve seen what the reality of redistricting will mean we are more willing than ever to explore options never before discussed seriously in the district.

Recently, I’ve talked a lot about the idea of exploring School Choice as a way forward for our district. The district is too large, the needs of each community to disparate, for a blunt tool like redistricting to be effective. Maybe in the short-term, but as our community continues to grow those short-term gains would not last. We’ll be back where we started.

It doesn’t have to be that way. I look at an idea like School Choice, coupled with the checks and balances provided by the diversity policy and forward-thinking, community-generated solutions like paired schools where they can work, magnet schools where we need/want them, and other varied curricular and lifestyle-based options as a way forward that will provide flexible options that the community will believe in, because they will have a hand in making them come to life.

Look at the two clusters we’re dealing with presently. Coralville Central and Lincoln parents are working together to find a solution that will work and honor the diversity policy goals. Twain is becoming a magnet school. We’re already started toward better solutions than what we’ve been given so far. What if Kirkwood became a magnet too? They have a very high FRL percentage as well. What if Grant Wood and the new South elementary were paired schools? That would solve a lot of the problems we see with high concentrations of students in that area who are eligible for free and reduced lunch because we’d be mixing a larger cohort of students.

It’s all there to be done, folks. But the administration doesn’t think we want it. Is that true? The board hasn’t come forward with new solutions yet either.

I applaud the parents I talked to today in Coralville. They’re working hard to find the right solutions. I think we all can join them and let the administration we want something more. Time is short. We have to redistrict the southeast side of Iowa City by fall of 2015. That’s 15 or so months away. It can be done.

Write the board. Write the administration. Tell them we’re willing to work toward better solutions that meet the goals of the diversity policy. Come to the board meeting on Tuesday at 6pm and tell the board you support the diversity policy, but you know we can do better than these current maps. That’s what I’ll be doing.

And stay tuned for news of a meeting for parents across the district where we can all get together and talk about how we can make all our schools better for the long haul.

We need to explore School Choice in the ICCSD

Friends of the ICCSD please read the article linked below.

It provides still more proof that a program of school choice could work very well in our community. This article from The Atlantic focuses on Burlington, VT. Champaign/Urbana has a similar system. Both towns have a lot in common with the Iowa City area–big university, increasingly mixed population, vestigial civic challenges. 

Why are we not exploring this as a system for our community? I know administration says that in community engagement this kind of idea didn’t garner support, but who’s going to choose a completely foreign solution out of a list of possible solutions when one of the other solutions is what we already do? No one. We are rightly risk averse when it comes to our children. What we already do is risk averse. It’s the safe choice.

It’s time to look seriously something other than what we already do. The current maps are unacceptable to everyone. I respect the work the board and administration has done, but it’s just not going to work.

Lead us in a new direction. I have so much faith in this community. I know we can find the right solution, one that helps every child and every family get the education and support they need. I feel it in my gut that School Choice is that solution.

Here’s a link to the article:

Here are a couple quotes that so starkly resemble the ICCSD it freaks me out. Will we be able to make similar statements in 5 years? Please share with friends.

“Just 5 years ago, the Sustainability Academy (SA) was known as the Lawrence Barnes Elementary School, one of two failing schools (the other was H.O. Wheeler) in the needy, sketchy part of Burlington, where about 95% of the kids were on free or reduced lunch (the nation’s most reliable proxy for poverty), test scores were very low and enrollment was declining. The school’s neighborhood is home to a mix of the down-and-out, the frontier-pushers, and is also the first stop for many of Burlington’s constant influx of refugees and immigrants.”

“By last year, every measure was trending in a positive direction: test scores at SA were way up, as were attendance and morale. The percentage of kids on free or reduced lunch dropped into the 70s. There is a rich ethnic mix of students, including roughly 46% white, 22% black, and 26% Asian. Or as Principal Williams put it another way, 50% from families traditional to the neighborhood; 20% who believe in the mission of the school; 30% new arrivals to Burlington from around the world, and speaking 15 different languages. There was a waiting list for kindergarten enrollment. The report from the middle school where the kids go next — that you couldn’t tell SA kids apart anymore — was perhaps the biggest compliment of all.”

Diversity policy is a step in the right direction

Last year the Iowa City Community School Board took a first step toward breaking down the socio-economic segregation in our community by passing a diversity policy aimed to balance the percentage of students who are eligible to receive free lunch more evenly across the district. And now the district has begun the process of implementing that policy.

And suddenly, the sleeping giant has awakened with calls for “more talk and engagement” and delay.

For some, it’s a smokescreen designed to slow down, obfuscate and protect the status quo. But where does that leave the voiceless? Those who are voiceless now have a cadre of proxies, both well-meaning and self-serving. And the insidious thing is the self-serving — those among us who send letters pleading to protect the “good schools” from “bad students” — will use the arguments of the social justice-minded among us to get what they want: more of the same.

Some say to keep the poor kids in schools where “the teachers know how to work with them” or “give them more money.”

No. That doesn’t work. And where would that money come from when we’re already cutting programs?

Teachers teach kids. All kids, no matter how rich or poor. I believe in them. Our kids work hard every day. I believe in them. We need to provide the best environment every day in every school for our teachers and students.

That’s what the diversity policy is designed to do. The policy is intended to help all kids in all families. Balanced SES correlates with higher achievement for all students, rich and poor. There’s 40 years of research that backs this up.

When Bourlag opened and the boundaries were redrawn for Weber and Horn, the percentage of students that qualify for free and reduced lunch went up significantly at Weber. In the ensuing years, test scores have increased for all students, according to Superintendent Steve Murley.

While some schools have as low as 4 percent of students eligible for free and reduced lunch and others have 80 percent, the classroom environment isn’t fair or equal for anyone. After decades of letting this wrong fester we must act.

At a recent cluster meeting, I sat at a table with a civic leader, someone who served on the school board and the city council, who said to wait — not this, not now. But we have waited too long, while many of our civic leaders were asleep at the switch.

Our children only get one education. It’s our job to make sure it’s the best we can provide. We are a community of educated, compassionate people, but for many when it comes to making changes to better the educational environment for all the kids in our district, the mantra becomes “change is great as long as I don’t have to change.”

Yes, we need to be sensitive to how these changes will affect the families from every corner of our community, but not to the point of becoming stuck in turgid, do-nothing gridlock where the only losers are our kids. Let’s show them they can live and learn with a diverse group of people so the cycle of fear, inaction and bigotry can be weakened by knowledge, togetherness and familiarity.

It’s time for the good-hearted advocates in the district stop throwing half-considered soundbites over the fortifications of their self-righteousness. We’re all fighting the same fight; even if we don’t agree on every point. And it’s time for the self-protective among us bring down the barriers erected by their fear and privilege.

If we all pull together in the general direction of what’s right and just, we might actually get somewhere.

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.