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School board’s diversity policy riles some, soothes others

Some schools would be redistributed by FRL rates under new plan

IOWA CITY– On Nov. 5, after being elected with Karla Cook as co-chairs of the governance committee, Sarah Swisher gave the board her goal for 2013: a new diversity policy based on free and reduced lunch rates at the schools.
She cited similar policy in Des Moines and Waterloo districts where a socio-economic approach attempts to keep schools balanced diversity.
The plan, which has been approved already twice in 4-3 votes by the board, still faces a final reading, likely on Feb. 5.
Tuyet Dorau, Patti Fields and Jeff McGinness have opposed the policy. Swisher, Cook, board president Marla Swesey and Sally Hoelscher voted in favor of the new policy.
A controversial part of the policy also puts a 95 percent capacity requirement on the secondary schools to fill seats before adding on or building new secondary schools. Enrollment capacities cannot differ by more than 10 percent for high schools, and 15 percent for junior high schools.
But 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 may be full soon too. City High, by some estimates, only has about 175 open seats. The alternative high school, Tate, is not subject to the rule.
Refined numbers come this spring when consultants will report on ICCSD’s inventory of classroom space and enrollment projections.
The two comprehensive Iowa City high schools would be limited to a 10 percent difference in free and reduced lunch (FRL) populations under the new policy. With an existing 11 percent FRL difference, West and City High would eventually see some minor change in student distribution, possibly through redistricting, but also possibly through magnet programs, new schools or other creative devices.
ICCSD Superintendent Stephen Murley said some students might have to change schools under the diversity policy, but members of the board have opposed extensive busing.
The plan gives the high schools two years and the lower grades five years to achieve balance.
Junior high and elementary schools must be within a 15 percent range for FRL recipients. ICCSD elementary schools are given as the likeliest targets for redistricting under the plan.
The district FRL average is about 36 percent, but ranges at different schools from less than six percent to 79 percent of students receiving FRL. Unconfirmed data that was circulated at a Jan. 12 listening post places six schools outside the allowable FRL range: Twain, Hills, Wood, Roosevelt, Kirkwood, and Horace Mann elementary schools.
A school plan called “One community, One district” suggests that new schools would be built in Iowa City and North Liberty if revenue is available and that would allow for some redistricting.
Many parents noted research that said schools with more equitable socioeconomic balance provide more student success.
Current and former board members Tuyet Dorau and Michael Shaw have spoken out against the diversity policy which they say is insulting to those who receive free or reduced lunch to be defined as minorities.
Shaw and Dorau said the policy was distasteful to conflate poverty with race and ethnicity, offensive to people of color who might not be receiving free or reduced lunch, and dismissive of white families who are struggling with issues related to poverty.
They asked the district to look at other ways to close an achievement gap between white or Asian students (who are more likely to graduate from college and hold advanced degrees) and black, Latino/Hispanic, and Native American students (who more frequently struggle in institutional learning systems).
Their arguments were rebutted by researchers Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter, who disagreed with Shaw and Dorau, saying the economic mix in a school is even more important than the racial mix in trying to boost academic achievement, and socioeconomic integration is one of the most effective ways to help boost the achievement of low-income students.
Longfellow PTA vice-president Dan Shaw said he thinks the diversity policy is a good plan because, “a balanced socioeconomic demographic is the ideal learning environment for students to learn.”
Shaw is an organizer of the One District Yes RPS campaign committee, which favors passage of the revenue purpose statement on Feb. 5, but he admitted that not everyone in his group favored the diversity policy.
Shaw said, “(it was) one measure of the degree to which the two issues are separate, that we have several people who believe passionately in the passage of the RPS and the opening up of the TARB [tax anticipation revenue bond] revenue stream to meet our district-wide facility needs, and yet have very different opinions on the role of a diversity/equity policy in ensuring the responsible growth of our schools.”
Superintendent Murley bemoaned the timing of the diversity policy but said he was determined not to let the two topics– the RPS vote and the diversity policy– become conflated by the community.
In early January, West High Principal Jerry Arganbright, with principals from Northwest and North Central Junior High schools, sent a letter to parents stating students at West could be sent to City High by next fall. Arganbright has spoken against the capacity requirement in the diversity policy.
A hurried vote on the policy, scheduled for a Saturday, Jan. 12, was scuttled and turned into a listening post for three school board members: board president Marla Swesey, Sally Hoelscher and Sarah Swisher. Over 150 parents and community members crowded into a standing-room only meeting space to air their opinions on the new plan to change diversity from race-based to economic-based by balancing schools according to Free and Reduced Lunch recipients.
Parent Amy Nielsen said a diversity policy was important but should not be done right now and asked the board to take it off the table until after Feb. 5.
A West High math teacher, Andre Echols, thanked the board for slowing down the diversity policy vote and asked at the listening post, “What happens two years down road, when free and reduced lunch distribution changes?”
Leo Eko, who has a daughter at West, said the diversity policy was actually a socio-economic policy, not an education policy.
Students at the listening post spoke about the fear of being bused to a different school.
Swisher said she was excited about plans for a third comprehensive high school and that the diversity policy would offer an opportunity at eventually ensuring balance at three high school buildings.
The school board said it would not hold another vote on the diversity policy until Feb. 5 at the earliest, the day of the RPS ballot and the next regular board meeting.