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Cedar Rapids, Iowa City schools work toward anti-racism goals months after Black Lives Matter demands

Summer of Black Lives Matter demands provides renewed focus on districts' equity initiatives

Students and supporters of Black Student Unions stand in line Oct. 29 for Willie Ray's BBQ at the Cedar Rapids Community
Students and supporters of Black Student Unions stand in line Oct. 29 for Willie Ray’s BBQ at the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s Black Student Unions Cookout at the African American Museum of Iowa. The event, sponsored by the district and Advocates for Social Justice, brought together Black student organizations from the city’s schools. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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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.

» Read more from: Cedar Rapids | Iowa City | Marion

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:

Cedar Rapids

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.

“Punishment is one thing. Growing, learning and developing and getting better is another,” she said.

Students have said they sometimes observe teachers turning a blind eye to racial comments.

Bush said the district is working on building staff’s “skill set.”

The district is also in the process of implementing an anonymous reporting system for students.

“Our goal is for everyone to have a safe, supportive place to learn and feel a sense of belonging,” Bush said. “There is certainly work to do, we don’t deny it, but we’re proud of the progress we’ve put in place.”

Iowa City

The Iowa City school board adopted a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Plan in December 2019.

The Black Lives Matter momentum over the summer helped the district “clarify” the plan, Superintendent Matt Degner said.

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The district has begun providing monthly professional development for all staff with a focus on cultural responsive teaching and equity led by Laura Gray, director of Diversity and Cultural Responsiveness.

The district’s curriculum review team has been meeting monthly to review the social studies curriculum. It also wrapped up a review of its language arts curriculum and is beginning to purchase new materials for courses, including incorporating more books from authors of color.

The district temporarily “put a pause” on some parts of the curriculum — such as parts of the fifth-grade social studies curriculum — “because we didn’t want to continue teaching things that could potentially cause harm to our kids,” Degner said.

In March, an ombudsman will start in the district to advocate for students and families with complaints about the way they were treated by administrators, teachers or peers.

“When we see kids move online to tell their stories, we need to improve trust,” Degner said. “They need to feel comfortable bringing those issues forward and that they will be dealt with in a responsible manner.”

Next year, the district will start incorporating new standards into teacher and administrator evaluations, including cultural responsiveness, Degner said.

Hiring more teachers and staff of color is a goal in the district’s plan.

“We need more teachers that look like our students, and our students need to be able to see themselves represented in the classroom,” Degner said.

Other demands included the school board requiring a supermajority vote to approve adding school resource officers.

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Iowa City schools currently do not have school resource officers — police officers in schools — and Degner said there is “no interest or conversation” in adding them.

The Iowa Freedom Riders also wanted the district to address the rate at which Black students are disciplined and referred to Tate Alternative School.

Degner said no student is disciplined to Tate.

“I know that was a concern. How can we do better to make sure the demographics (at Tate) are not disproportionate to the demographics across the district?”

Degner said the district is continuing to refine practices on how students are referred to Tate, and that is something it has been working on for three years. Often, students are referred to Tate to help them catch up on credits to graduate, he said.

“We try to work through a multitiered system of supports to make sure the first question is ‘What have we done to try to support that student in their home high school?’”

Comments: (319) 398-8411; grace.king@thegazette.com

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