Will volunteers be enough to carry I.C. Schools' "diversity policy"?

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The Iowa City school district deserves a lot of credit for tackling the district’s lopsided enrollments of students in poverty.

But as they move closer to adopting a “diversity policy” that would set a ceiling for the number of free and reduced lunch-eligible kids that could be enrolled in any particular school, they need to be realistic about its implementation.

Researchers have found that schoolwide concentrations of poverty of greater than 50 percent negatively affect student performance across the board. Bring the numbers down, and every type of student performs better. But the low-income numbers at Iowa City’s schools vary from 5.88 percent to 78.57 percent. By far, elementary schools have the greatest spread. At six of them, more than 51 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

The school board’s “diversity policy” would cap elementary schools’ enrollments of those kids at 15 percentage points above the district average. Junior high and high schools also would have to stay within a certain percentage. Using today’s numbers, such a policy would bring all the district’s schools below the magic 50 percent threshold. It also would involve shuffling a lot of kids.

So I’m suspicious about any plan that relies on volunteerism in order to make the numbers match up.

I haven’t forgotten the knockdown, drag-out community redistricting forums from a few years back. Parents at those meetings were adamant about preserving their neighborhood schools, even if it meant also preserving a shamefully lopsided distribution of kids in poverty. Unless all those staunch neighborhood school preservationists have had changes of heart, it’s going to take a firm boundary map — or a heckuva carrot — to put any diversity plan into action.

Board member Jeff McGinness is on the right track when he talks about using incentives like special programs or year-round enrollment to encourage students to voluntarily switch. But I’m not sure even that would be enough. Before they get too far down the road, board members need to find out if they can count on enough volunteers to ensure the success of any “diversity policy.”

It will be the difference between appearing to care about a wildly uneven distribution of at-risk students and actually taking action that will help give all the district’s students the educational opportunities they deserve.

Comments: (319) 339-3154; jennifer.hemmingsen@sourcemedia.net

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