Iowa City schools going forward with boundary changes, diversity policy

Parents vocal on position regarding changes

IOWA CITY — Two of the most contentious issues the Iowa City Community School District has dealt with in recent years are boundary changes and a diversity policy. Now it’s taking those on at the same time.

Perhaps not surprisingly, that’s bringing out strong emotions from parents both for and against proposed changes.

“Anytime your kids get sent to a different school there’s apprehension, fear of the unknown,” Superintendent Stephen Murley said.

The district for the past several weeks has worked with community members on drawing boundaries for 14 elementary schools, which is roughly two-thirds of the kindergarten-through-sixth-grade buildings in the district. It could result in more than 1,500 students changing schools in fall 2015.

The district will soon start work on junior high and high school boundaries too. All schools except Tate High, an alternative school, are to see boundary changes the next few years.

Boundary proposals for the elementary schools are to go to the school board Tuesday.

There’s some deja vu with the debate.

The school district spent months on what is known as redistricting in 2010 but made few changes after encountering strong public resistance, although there also were parents calling for new boundaries.

Something must be done this time, school officials said.

“We’re at a point in our district where change has to occur, and so we might as well do it in a way that not so much appeases but takes into account the values of the community overall,” school board member Brian Kirschling said.

The district is one of the fastest growing in the state. It has about 12,900 students this year and is projected to add another 3,500 by 2023.

New schools and building additions are planned over the next several years, which will require modifying school attendance zones throughout the district.

District administrators also are charged with implementing a diversity policy a split school board approved last year.

The policy requires schools to be within a certain percentage of each other for students who receive free or reduced-price lunch, a common measure of poverty. A wide disparity currently exists between schools, and some educators and research suggest learning is more difficult for all students in schools with high numbers of low-income pupils.

The diversity policy drew strong reactions from parents for and against it last year, and much of that remains.

Also, the federal and state governments continue to raise questions over how the Iowa City school district is using the meals data.

Murley said it’s “been a struggle to get that balance” required by the diversity policy. In fact, a few schools are not in compliance under the current scenario.

In other cases, administrators have proposed some significant changes to meet the policy. For example, some students who can see Kirkwood Elementary in Coralville from their homes would go to Coralville Central or to Lincoln Elementary in Iowa City.

Hundreds of parents have attended redistricting meetings, and parents also have addressed the school board.

Sommer Gilbert told the school board last month that her son will be a kindergartner at Lincoln Elementary in the fall and, under the plans as they were then, he would switch schools multiple times.

She said she believed people were not in favor of implementing the diversity policy until a new elementary school opens on the north side of the district in 2019.

“I just feel like you’re placing more value on the policies that you want to implement than on the actual children that you’re supposed to be concerned for,” Gilbert said.

At the same meeting parent Jason Lewis offered a rebuttal. He has a child at Twain Elementary and another at Wood Elementary, which have two of the highest free-reduced lunch rates in the district.

He said as uncomfortable as it is to talk about, students who are eligible for the meals program have more barriers to their learning. If teachers are overwhelmed, it’s all students who are affected, he said.

“We have a responsibility as a public school system to serve them all as best we possibly can,” Lewis said.

Underlying the diversity policy and redistricting is race, said Alecia Brooks. She is active in the community and said she’s concerned about the number of low-income students, particularly minority students, who will switch schools.

The district has grouped schools into clusters for redistricting, and the two elementary school clusters currently under consideration have seven schools each.

In each cluster, the two schools with the highest free-reduced lunch rates — Central and Kirkwood in one, Wood and Twain in the other — account for 70 percent or more of the kids changing schools.

Murley said that to meet the diversity policy, the schools with the highest and lowest free-reduced lunch rates would necessarily need to see the biggest changes.

Brooks wants to ensure that any extra support low-income students have at their current schools follows them if they move. Switching to a school farther from home, no matter the distance, can have an effect, she said.

“I still, once again, believe it’s still a disruption, it’s still a change,” she said.

Genella Ringer said she’s heard many of her neighbors near Kirkwood Elementary express similar concerns and say they feel like black people are being singled out as the reason students need to be shuffled around.

She does not share that view, and she has mixed feelings on redistricting and the diversity policy.

She and her husband, Shawn, have two kids at Kirkwood Elementary and another not yet in school. The most recent boundary scenario would have them switching to Coralville Central. but the Ringers hope to buy a house in the next year and may have moved anyway.

“It’s a touchy situation,” Ringer said of conversations over socioeconomic status and student achievement, “but unfortunately, that’s life.”

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