116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Iowa schools work through pilot programs, social justice issues
Black Student Unions, culturally responsive curriculum and equity groups lead the way
As the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum in Cedar Rapids during the summer of 2020, two Kennedy High School students made demands to the school board — including asking for the removal of school resource officers from schools.
Almost a year later, district officials in Cedar Rapids schools presented data to the school board from the Iowa Department of Human Rights, which showed that Black students in the Cedar Rapids are far more likely to have allegations of criminal wrongdoing made against them than their white peers.
School board president Nancy Humbles said the impact of officers on Black and brown students is “concerning.”
“We want all of our students to thrive in our district, but when I see that students who are impacted are Black and brown, that for me is concerning … That’s troubling because if these children are being arrested in school this follows them. You cannot tell me it doesn’t,” Humbles said during a school board meeting on July 12.
Black students made up 61.2 percent of the criminal allegations — including simple, serious and aggravated misdemeanors and felonies — in Cedar Rapids schools between 2015-2020, while making up only 19.1 percent of the district’s student population, according to the data.
Black students also are arrested at higher rates than white students. Over a four-year period, 371 Black and 285 white students were arrested by school officers.
White students are 60.4 percent of the student body in Cedar Rapids schools, but account for only a minority of the criminal allegations.
A recommendation about the program for the 2021-22 school year was made during an Aug. 9 school board meeting.
At the time of deadline, the school board had not yet made a decision about how to move forward with the school resource officer program.
The program was piloted in the Cedar Rapids district in January 2010 at Jefferson High School. A year later, it was expanded to Kennedy and Washington high schools. At the time of publication, school resource officers were at Jefferson High, Kennedy High, Washington High, Metro, Polk Alternative and Roosevelt and McKinley middle schools.
District officials were considering removing school resource officers from middle schools or expanding it to all middle schools on a rotation basis.
Deputy Superintendent Nicole Kooiker said there is not a good reason why officers are at only those two middle schools. “For next year we’ve been having really challenging conversations about if they serve all six? Do they serve none?” Kooiker said.
Discussions such as this — the future of the school resource officer program in Cedar Rapids — and what equity, diversity and inclusion looks like grew immensely during the 2020-21 school year.
Iowans hungry for racial justice protested and made demands to city and school officials following the Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a police officer in May 2020.
At the same time, students doubled their efforts to create Black Student Unions and racial equity groups that called for the removal of school resource officers and for inclusive, anti-racist teaching, among other issues.
Educators took a closer look at what was being taught and, in some instances, are making changes — to be more responsive, to include different cultures. Teachers and school staff are being trained in cultural proficiency, implicit bias and accountability.
‘Equity improves everything’
Advocates say they are proud of the progress their schools are making toward anti-racism initiatives and want to make sure that progress continues.
“Equity improves everything,” said Kimberly Fitten, assistant principal at Liberty High School in North Liberty and president and CEO of ReSet Consulting, which helps organizations implement strategies and solutions for diversity and inclusion.
“It leads to student success. The district I work in is growing the most in administrators of color in Iowa,” Fitten said. “When people see themselves here, they can apply, and talent can increase. The number still is small, but it’s the initiative.”
The Iowa City district launched a “Grow Your Own” program for the 2021-22 school year, an administrative fellowship to help teachers of color move into administrative roles.
Twelve fellows began the two-year fellowship this fall, and the district received over 40 applications.
The program is being jump started with the help of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, federal aid to address the impact of COVID-19 on elementary and secondary schools.
Fitten wants to show people they can grow without “white guilt and white shame,” which can lead some people to disengage.
“What we’re not going to talk about is guilt, shame and blame,” she said.
George Floyd's murder was videotaped and circulated on the internet in the middle of a pandemic, when people were working and schooling from home.
“People were forced to watch the news. Parents who would normally be at work were having conversations with their kids about race,” Fitten said. “It provided for rich dialogue and honest conversation.”
Students took to social media and were “releasing their trauma moments,” Fitten said.
Students in the Iowa City Community School District launched an Instagram page, @blackaticcsd, where students anonymously submit their stories of racism they’ve experienced at school.
“One of the best things that came out of the pandemic was hearing what our students went through, as much as it hurt to read, hear and see it,” Fitten recalled
With renewed energy, students in schools across Iowa formed Black Student Unions and other student-led groups calling for anti-racism and inclusion.
The Cedar Rapids district renewed its efforts to support Black Student Unions at all four high schools — Kennedy, Jefferson, Washington and Metro — during the 2020-21 school year.
Students in the Black Student Union have been meeting regularly, lending support to each other academically and advocating for Black Lives Matter demands made in July 2020.
Sisters Raafa and Rahma Elsheikh, who graduated from graduated from Kennedy High School in May, presented Black Lives Matter demands to the school board in July 2020 that included:
- Removing school resource officers — police — from school buildings
- Ensuring class curricula teaches more Black history
- Making available a therapist of color to students of color
- The district recruiting more staff members of color
- Enforcing stricter disciplinary action against students who use racial slurs.
In May 2021, a group of students at Linn-Mar High School held a social justice rally, spoke about the prejudice they’ve faced in the school district and called for change.
The rally was the first event organized by the new Social Justice Club, which is for any student who has felt marginalized, including students of color, LGBTQ students and students with disabilities, said Janessa Carr, a student assistance counselor at Linn-Mar High School.
Taeja Miller Grundy, a Linn-Mar Class of 2021 graduate, spoke about how change starts with schools teaching Black history, so students can understand and confront their own racism, prejudice, white privilege and misogyny.
At the rally, Grundy said she had been called racial slurs by other students and had students make fun of her skin color and hair texture.
“Any student coming from a historically marginalized group has a voice, and the district will be forced to pay attention, shed a light on this and put things in place to make sure we’re equitable in all areas,” Carr said to The Gazette in May.
Other students told stories about being the only Black person in their classroom and learning a “whitewashed” version of history.
“Whenever we talk about racism and systemic oppression, it’s watered down so people don’t feel uncomfortable,” said Jeany Toingar, 19, a 2020 Linn-Mar graduate and now a premed student at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Culturally responsive curriculum
The Black Lives Matter protests also prompted educators, students and community members to look more critically at what is being taught in classrooms.
Educators in the Cedar Rapids district have been revisiting social studies, language arts, Advanced Placement and music curriculum across all grade levels.
The district has been working for years on an inclusive curriculum in which students can see themselves in what they’re learning and also learn about different perspectives and cultures.
Beth Davies, Cedar Rapids K-12 music content lead and Franklin Middle School band director, began working on the district’s music curriculum.
In an interview with The Gazette in March, Davies said she found music “right away” that should not be used in classrooms because of its “racist roots.”
Songs such as “Oh! Susanna” — first published in 1848 and written by Stephen Foster — originally were used in minstrel-style shows. Although the lyrics have been changed over the years, the original racist lyrics are just a Google search away.
This can be especially problematic in music because students may be memorizing songs that contain racist lyrics.
Davies introduced a culturally responsive checklist to help music teachers select songs. Teachers, she said, should look at the title and make sure it does not use language that mocks a group of people or culture, such as a song Davies came across titled “Taco Rocko.”
Lyrics should be free of racist or biased language, and if the original lyrics of a song are racist, it should not be used. Music teachers should ask themselves, “What was the original purpose of the song?” Davies said.
Iowa City reconsideration committee
Looking at curriculum through a culturally responsive lens isn’t contained to just music curriculum or Cedar Rapids schools.
The Iowa City Community School District temporarily halted its fifth-grade social studies curriculum after concerns about the way it addressed slavery.
The district convened a reconsideration committee to take a closer look at the text and determined it was not
inclusive, said Brady Shutt, social studies teacher at Liberty High School in North Liberty.
Instead, the district began piloting a curriculum from inquirED, an online social studies curriculum, for kindergarten through sixth-grade social studies.
The curriculum is an inquiry model of learning, Shutt said, which emphasizes the student's role in the learning process.
Rather than the teacher telling students what they need to know, students are encouraged to explore the material, ask questions and share ideas.
“In social studies, in my experience, too often we have relied on textbooks that might center the white narrative more at the exclusion of other perspectives,” Shutt said. “Our responsibility is to make sure it’s not the only narrative or perspective students engage with.”
The BLM movement also brought increased attention to equity, diversity and inclusion in classrooms.
Laurie Phelan is the president and CEO of Iowa Jobs for America’s Graduates, or iJAG, a not-for-profit that provides dropout prevention and school-to-work transition services to students.
About 60 percent of students served by iJAG are non-white and 25 percent of the staff is racially diverse, Phelan noted.
While iJAG may be able to help recruit, hire and retain more diverse teachers, Phelan asked herself, “Is it OK that 75 percent of our students don’t feel like they have someone who looks like them in their classroom?”
In 2018, 92 percent of Iowa’s K-12 teachers were white.
iJAG created an equity resource group and worked with Kim Fitten to review issues, such as how job descriptions can be written to be more inclusive.
iJAG’s receptiveness to the Black Lives Matter movement opened the doors for teachers such as Ragan Ross to create a national social justice grant for students and schools.
Ross, a teacher at United Township High School in Illinois and JAG national trainer, worked with her students on a project called Lifting Our Voices in Equity, or the LOVE Project.
Her students chose to organize events for Black History Month in February and Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May.
“When I created this project, it was therapeutic,” Ross said. “It was hurtful to see what happened on live TV as a Black woman, and I knew my students were feeling that way, too. I wanted them to be able to put their feelings into action.”
When Jobs for America’s Graduates, national JAG, heard about the project, it spurred a grant program, so JAG students across the United States could work on equity issues in their communities.
Some Iowa schools received $500 mini-grants from the LOVE Project this year, including Hoover High School in Des Moines, Des Moines North High School and Dubuque Hempstead.
“Students want to be change makers,” Ross said. “They ask, ‘Miss Ross, how are we going to make a difference?’ and I remind them how this little project started. Equality is giving everyone a shoe, and equity is making sure that shoe fits,” Ross said.
Iowa City ombudsman
The Iowa City school board approved a diversity, equity and inclusion plan in 2019. Data shows the district consistently has gaps in structurally disadvantaged subgroups — students who are Black, Hispanic, English-language learners, on free-and reduced-price lunch or special education students with an Individualized Education Plan.
The board also created an ombudsman position — someone to investigate complaints — to help students, families and staff navigate and report racial bias concerns.
Iowa City Superintendent Matt Degner said the ombudsman would be an advocate for students, especially students of color, who often turn to social media to talk about their experiences of racism at school.
The person hired to this position was expected to start over the summer.
Laura Gray, the district’s director of diversity and cultural responsiveness, said the district’s equity goals are “absolutely” being shaped by racial unrest.
The district also introduced an optional tool kit — created by Gray — for teachers to check their lessons for cultural responsiveness and submit them to a team of teachers for feedback.
Gray began providing mandatory equity professional development lessons for staff this year, including cultural proficiency, implicit bias and accountability training.
“As educators, the social side of equity is important,” Gray said. “However, on the academic side, we’re helping propel students who fall through the achievement gap or are historically marginalized. That is what will free people, propel people to their highest self and give them the ability to be independent learners.”
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