Editor’s Note: After video last summer captured the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, protests for social justice reverberated across the country, including in the Corridor. Local governments and school districts made promises about how they would respond to the calls to eliminate systematic racism. Now months later, here are updates on where these public agencies stand.
Last summer as hundreds of Eastern Iowans took to the streets seeking racial justice, the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City school boards were approached by residents and students with Black Lives Matter demands.
While navigating through a pandemic and a derecho that left school buildings severely damaged, the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City school districts are taking steps to address racial inequity in their schools.
Two Kennedy High School students, Rahma and Raafa Elsheikh, approached the Cedar Rapids school board in July with action items on how the district can better support Black students and students of color.
In Iowa City, the school board is working with the district’s Equity Committee on its equity, diversity and inclusion plan, which had input from the Iowa Freedom Riders.
Here is where the demands stand today:
The demands made by Rahma and Raafa coincided with six virtual town hall meetings in July for students, staff, parents, community members and administrators to talk about anti-racism efforts.
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From those meetings, the district created initiatives to elevate student voice; incorporate cultural competency learning into professional learning for staff; committed to reviewing curriculum for equity; continue hiring a more diverse staff; and implement better supports for families.
Superintendent Noreen Bush also implemented a Superintendent’s Advisory Council, made up of 75 high school students, to work on anti-racism efforts. They held their first meeting in January, and Bush plans to meet with them for 90 minutes monthly, as well as meeting with members in smaller “work teams.”
Raafa and Rhama asked the district to consider renaming schools named after slave owners such as Jackson, Washington and Jefferson. Bush said the district used to have a policy on naming schools after presidents, but that policy ended over 30 years ago. Now the district is working through renaming schools through its facilities plan.
For example, the district is currently in the midst of rebuilding two elementary schools — Coolidge and Jackson — which will be renamed with community input after completion.
To assess staff’s cultural responsiveness and anti-racism teaching, the district is in a three-year process of implementing Intercultural Developmental Inventory at each building, which assesses the intercultural competence of the school and helps it work toward inclusion goals.
In the meantime, the district is incorporating implicit bias training and social-emotional learning into its required learning for staff.
The Social Studies, Language Arts and Music departments are working to review their PK-12 curricula for equity, diversity and inclusion, Bush said, and will start planning the implementation of new curriculum this year.
“We can’t wait any longer for this to happen,” she said.
Rhama and Raafa also requested the district end its contract with the Cedar Rapids Police Department and remove school resource officers.
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Bush said the district has a “long time relationship” with the police department, and there is opportunity for the district to revisit the purpose of the school resource officer program.
“The girls asked we eliminate school resource officers to hire more therapists,” Bush said. “We have invested in more therapists, especially through teletherapy this year.
“The reason (school resource officer program) exists is to develop relationships with students,” she continued. “They’re there for safety, too, but it’s about establishing relationships with a member of their community who happens to be a police officer.”
Rahma and Raafa also asked the district have a stricter disciplinary policy against students who use racial slurs.
Bush said if there is a racial comment, the district will investigate it, and it may be considered bullying or harassment. What’s been missing from the process is restorative justice, she said.
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