School boundaries shouldn't worsen transportation barriers

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Lori Roetlin, guest columnist

Recent elementary and secondary boundary decisions have revealed that the Iowa City school board, whose members are a reflection of the community who elected us, have differing opinions about how to best equip our students for success. We all care about student achievement, but we bring different perspectives to the table as to how to best serve all our students.

When I was campaigning for my seat on the board, I promised to bring a social work perspective to my decision making. My cognitive process has been guided by social work principles such as the strengths perspective and a systems perspective.

According to Bridges out of Poverty (Payne, DeVol, Smith; 2009), there are four causes of poverty: “behaviors of the individual, human and social capital in the community, exploitation, and political/economic structures”. Historically, societal efforts to combat poverty have placed the most emphasis on changing the “behaviors of the individual”, and education would fall in this paradigm. Efforts to offset the ramifications of poverty must be incorporated into the educational experience if a child is to be successful in school. Many of our district staff know this well and give generously of their time and resources to help students be successful, assisting with transportation, providing school supplies, volunteering at parent English language learner classes, etc.

I have striven to consider the “human and social capital” of children who are living in poverty. Recently a group of Student and Family Advocates identified areas of our district where access to transportation (an example of human and social capital) impacts school attendance. Areas of Kirkwood and Alexander Elementary attendance zones were identified in this report. Despite this identification, it is believed by some that children in these same households will not be adversely affected by assignment to secondary schools that cannot be reached on foot or by public transportation. Though there is data showing that participation in extracurricular activities correlates with higher academic achievement, even more importantly, if these kids miss the bus and have no transportation options to get to school, it will be difficult for them to achieve in school.

Being able to attend a neighborhood school is “human and social capital” that should be awarded equally around the district. “Neighborhood schools” were a primary consideration in making 2019 elementary assignments, and were prioritized above socioeconomic (SES) balancing. (With the new elementary boundaries, the gap between the lowest and highest low SES percentage in our elementary schools will reach the highest level ever: 74!) If we value walkability consistently, children in Kirkwood and Alexander Elementary zones should also have the privilege of attending their closest secondary schools, without having to request a “voluntary transfer” months in advance.

Poverty is caused by “political and economic structures” that create disparity. Historically, this has particularly impacted minorities. Kirkwood and Alexander Elementary schools have 63 percent and 68 percent minority populations respectively. In our meetings with Kirkwood and Alexander families, all of which included parents of minority children, parents expressed concern to board members about being assigned to secondary schools that their students (and they as parents) cannot reach on foot or via public transportation. It is important that these concerns not be ignored to avoid a political structure where the message is that those in power know better than those impacted as to what is in their best interest.

The benefit of diversity in the classroom is something that I know firsthand from my kids’ experience attending elementary school with 48 percent low SES, 42 percent minority population, and 7 percent English Language Learners. It should be a priority for all elementary children to be in diverse classrooms from the first day of kindergarten, especially where it can be achieved with no additional busing. Racial and economic diversification accomplished by busing children with documented transportation barriers, however, is not something I can support.

• Iowa City school board member Lori Roetlin has a master’s degree in Social Administration from Case Western Reserve University and over 20 years of experience working with people living in poverty. The opinions expressed here are hers and not reflective of the board. Comments:

More opinions on the July 19 Iowa City School Board election:

Diversity in school helps kids thrive

Balance schools, minimize barriers to education

Balance and equity in Iowa City schools

Iowa City School election a referendum on equity, attendance

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