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.

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6 thoughts on “Location, Location, Location: let’s move forward with new ideas

  1. This isn’t just a “municipality” problem. The district itself exacerbates the situation. If not, why are we about to open a new high school in an area that is primarily affluent? Look at a district SES map — very little poverty north of I-80, where the new school will be located. How is this *not* yet another example of socioeconomic isolation / segregation? How is the ICCSD *not* complicit in exacerbating the current segregation?

    It appears to me that the district — limited somewhat by the ability to locate 70 suitable acres to build a high school — is trying to address this via boundaries that aren’t ideal. But now we seem to have have people saying — “the socioeconomic segregation is all due to municipal problems,” while turning a blind eye to — or opposing — efforts to address the situation using boundaries (in part).

    • Julie, you’re absolutely right. The district has exacerbated the problem, for the reasons you mention as well as others.

      My main point here, as it relates to the redistricting for the new high school, is that the district has gone on for so long trying to map the district in absolutely the wrong way. You’re right. If you look at the SES distribution there’s are many more ‘hot spots” (as the district so lovingly calls them) on the SE side of Iowa City and this was part of the reason they scrapped the wholesale redistricting plans last year. You couldn’t get the SE side into compliance with the diversity policy because of the the concentration of lower income households.

      Well, I call BS. The diversity policy never said to use redistricting to be the only way to reach its goal. There were several other means suggested to reach the desired balance including magnet schools and other means.

      In fact, the district emptied out half of Twain Elementary in order to place a magnet program there and then they balked and formed yet another committee. They have zero interest in taking risk or trying anything new. The only way they would take a risk is if the vocal minority, forced them to. And they are not.

      Yes, I was on the magnet task force and I left my time there knowing two things:

      1. Magnet schools implemented in “hot spots” across the district over the next 5-10 years are one of our best chances for moving toward a better balanced district.

      2. The board will bury its head in the sand, bury our report and say it’s too hard, or too expensive or something. Other than a couple very welcome examples, the board is devoid of vision and leadership. It’s status quo by committee.

      Yes, the district is complicit in the wrongs that socioeconomic segregation perpetrate on our community every day. The board has made attempts at doing something to right those wrongs, but at every step the momentum has been blocked by an entrenched minority that wants to maintain the staus quo out of fear and a school board that’s too meek, too cowed by the ickiness of change for the better of the many, not the few, that they have done nothing.

      We have a chance in this upcoming election to vote 4 of these people out. We have to ask ourselves what kind of people we want to replace them with. To we want another 4 group thinkers? Do we want the unobjectionable team players or do we want people who are mad as hell about how nothing has gotten done in our community for so long and are willing to go to the mattresses to fight against it?

  2. Ok, so what is your proposed solution? How do we strike a balance between geography and socioeconomic diversity without taking kids out of their neighborhood schools? Why isn’t it part of the plan to place more resources (more staffing, more technology, etc.) with the schools who need it and focus on hiring professionals who will work well with specific populations? Reduce class sizes in areas where more students have IEPs or 504 plans. Reduce in-class load for teachers of students with nontraditional family structures so that instructors can meet with parents and guardians during the day since they might work multiple jobs or work at night. Schools create their own environments based on the population, no matter how affluent or diverse, so why not focus on how to best support the environments that schools and neighborhoods create instead of changing where kids go?

    • CHW: Thanks for the question. You’re right on. and you really get to the heart the challenge.

      There are many ways we can come at these challenges other than what we’ve tried to do over and over in the past (move boundaries). I had the opportunity to serve on the magnet school task force the district formed at the end of last year. I was already in favor of implementing magnets in our district, but my time on the task force really cemented my feeling that magnets can be a strong tool to help us with balance. We know that balanced classrooms help every student and teacher, so balance should always be one of our top priorities.

      There’s a lot of work that needs to go into making magnets happen and I want to see the district form a 10 year plan that dovetails with the facilities plan to implement magnets. I’d like that plan to focus on implementing 3-4 magnets across the district. When the facilities plan is finished, we’ll have about 22 elementary schools in our district. With proper planning, 3-4 of those 22 could me made into magnets and if they are placed correctly, they could help balance the schools without having to change boundaries extensively.

      Of course, magnets won’t work as the only means to offset the challenges we face. I think you’ve pointed out key area where we need to consider other possibilities. A weighted funding model like what you suggest could very well be a great way to allocate resources in a way that will be responsive to the needs in each school. I was very disappointed to see our district adopt an “aspirational class size” model that doesn’t take these needs into account. For example, the “aspirational class size” for 3-6 grade classrooms is 28 students. 28 students in a classroom with a larger percentage of English Language Learner students, or as you point out, students with accommodations through an IEP or 504 plan, are not the same as a classroom with 28 students where a larger percentage of students don’t have these or other challenges. My son has an IEP and my daughter ha a 504. I know how challenging it can be to make those plans work.

      To have a one-size-fits-all aspirational number may sound OK in theory, but in practice that number could be very detrimental to our students because it requires that the individuals who implement the policies show a greater amount of discretion than the policies themselves show. That where mistakes can occur. We need policies that guide us with more directed language that leads us toward our goals without room for too much interpretation. I’d like to see policy language that plans for the differences that each classroom will exhibit. I’d like to see policies that take into account the unique nature of each of our schools instead of blanketing our district with ill-fitting aspirations.

      Magnets and weighted funding are just two possible solutions that could move us toward a more responsive district. Used together they could be powerful tools to change the way we help our students reach their potential. I don’t know if they are the right or only solutions, but I’m running for board to help ensure that solutions like these enjoy a fair and open discussion. Too often we move toward efficiencies in administering our schools. That’s a good policy at times, but sometimes blanket application can cover our problems instead of solving them. We need policies and solutions that do what our teachers do so well: respond to the needs of the students and seek solutions that will help each and every one.

      Thank you again for your question. I don’t know all the answers and I really need to hear from folks like you to help. I look forward to working together to make a better school district.

      • Thank you for your detailed answer!

        Since I’m not as familiar with the concept of magnet schools, I’m wondering if you can speak to their structural differences, administrative models, and how their locations and specialties might add to the dynamic of the district? More specifically, I’m wondering how you would see magnet schools fitting into the funding available and facilities usage without spending millions to construct new locations. In addition, if we use currently available funding and facilities, how would that impact the needs of other students not in attendance at magnet schools?

        I completely agree that there ought not be a blanket policy to try to enact sweeping change. In a district this diverse, the response of administration also needs to be diverse. At the same time, I’m cautiously curious and (frankly) a little gun-shy about making these kinds of changes without discussing them with teachers. Decisions that are made without the input of classroom leaders will fall flat, but they’re the ones who have to pick up the pieces. For example, when the district funded a technology initiative, no one seemed to care about targeted implementation. As a result, there are SMART Boards which go unused and Ladybug document cameras which sit with their dust covers year-round. How do you propose approaching changes to student organization and resource allocation with the inclusion of input from classroom teachers?

        Thanks again for the information!

  3. Teachers should always be central to any classroom decision making process. And I agree that technology has been a difficult area for our district. It is for any district, I’d imagine. I think it’s great we have Smartboards in ever classroom now, but unfortunately we got them at a time when we needed to be moving onto the next technology. Tablets in the classroom have met with mixed success but they’re the new paradigm in computer usage. It would be smart of us to begin planning now for implementing new technologies into our classrooms proactively. If we follow the current trends, they’ll be long gone by the time the technology actually reaches our students. There’s a lot that can be done in concert with municipal governments and community leaders to make our community proactive on the technology front, but it needs to be a priority.

    The same goes with magnet programming. One of the biggest early hurdles any district needs to clear is helping the community understand what magnets are and what they aren’t. Often they are confused with Charter Schools, but they are not the same. Charter schools are ostensibly private schools run with public monies. Magnet schools are operated by the school district. There are other differences, but that difference is key.

    From a facilities standpoint, the district should be in good shape. We are building and adding onto our schools with flexibility as a core principle of the designs. Magnet schools don’t often require special facilities to be implemented. I’ll use Twain Elementary as an example. Last year during the redistricting discussions, the board and administration decided to cut the native attendance at Twain from around 400 this year to around 200 for next year. Twain has a brand new addition coming online next year that will transform the school. In concert with bringing that new addition online, the thought was to implement a magnet program at Twain; that was the impetus for cutting the attendance, opening seats for students drawn to Twain by the magnet.

    The teachers, administrators, and many families who support Twain were largely enthusiastic. Even though my daughter will leave Twain for Southeast before any Magnet could happen, I was really excited to see magnets get off the ground at such a fantastic school. Somewhere along the way the decision was made to form a task force, not to research how to implement a magnet school at Twain, but to find out best practices for implementing magnets.

    I was happy to serve on that task force and I learned a great deal. But I was also a little frustrated. As you indicated, finances are a major concern when bringing any new curriculum on board, but it also stands to reason that you’re not going to put forth a lot of effort to fund an initiative you haven’t committed to yet. The task force had the opportunity to bend the ear of the president of Magnet Schools of America, who was working with Cedar Rapids on their new magnet initiatives. We discovered that there are numerous funding pathways for magnets–everything from federal grants to local partnerships–but we’re not going to hire grant writers to seeking funding for programs we haven’t planned to implement. We aren’t going to reach out to community leaders to support an initiative that isn’t in a long term plan.

    Beyond those first steps, you need to engage the community to identify what programs interest families, you need to train the staffs, and you need to prepare the curriculum. There are magnets that have been put together in very short order, but our committee recommended 18 months to go through all the necessary steps to start with the best chance of success. Marketing is also a huge part of a successful magnet and it takes time to build awareness and understanding.

    Long story short, I came away from the magnet task force feeling like magnets were a huge opportunity for our district. Yes, there are challenges, but none of them are insurmountable if we’re able to commit ourselves and do the hard work. It should be part of a long term plan that locks in with our facilities initiatives.

    It can be done and done well. We just have to commit while knowing we have a lot of work to do to educate our families, build a great plan, and train our amazing teachers before we ever crack the first book.

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