Education

Cedar Rapids schools form Black Student Unions to begin new anti-racism work

Equity training, diversifying the workforce and family engagement included in anti-racism plan

Seventeen-year-old sisters Rahma (left) and Raafa Elsheikh of Cedar Rapids read a poem together during an organized prot
Seventeen-year-old sisters Rahma (left) and Raafa Elsheikh of Cedar Rapids read a poem together during an organized protest June 13 at Bever Park in Cedar Rapids. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — The Cedar Rapids Community School District is creating Black student unions at each of its four high schools, and a Superintendent’s Advisory Group, to begin new anti-racism efforts.

“Not only in Cedar Rapids, but in our state, nation and world, our children of color, employees and community members of color are experiencing things differently,” Superintendent Noreen Bush said during a school board meeting earlier this week.

“We thought it was important to say we are committed to being an anti-racist community, and what can we do to make sure our students and staff experience a welcoming environment?”

The district held six virtual town hall meetings in July attended by 170 participants. Some common themes were listening to the experience of students of color, providing professional development for staff in equity and diversity, diversifying the workforce and improving family and community engagement in anti-racism, Bush said.

The Black student unions at Kennedy, Jefferson, Washington and Metro high schools will each be lead by two students and an adviser.

The first Black student union was launched last year at Kennedy High.

Raafa Elsheikh, 17, a Kennedy High senior, is one of the founders of the school’s Black Student Union. As a student of color, Raafa said she “never felt welcomed or celebrated” in the Cedar Rapids schools.

“I feel like we’re finally being heard. We’re finally getting all this stuff we’ve been fighting for years,” she said.

Raafa hopes the Black Student Union will be a launching point to get some Black Lives Matter action items implemented in the district.

Raafa and her sister, Rahma Elsheikh, presented a list of Black Lives Matter demands to the school board in July. They also spoke at a Black Lives Matter rally in June hosted by the Advocates for Social Justice about the school district’s lack of support for Black students and students of color.

“I like how they’re taking things from our demand list and putting it into action items,” Raafa said. “I appreciate that it’s student-centered, but I think the district should focus on teachers and staff of color.”

Raafa and Rahma have been meeting with the district’s equity and diversity team monthly since speaking with the school board.

Other demands they made earlier this summer included asking the district to end its contract with the Cedar Rapids Police Department and remove school resource officers from school buildings.

They demanded a therapist of color be available to students of color in the district, and the district work to recruit more staff members of color.

They asked that cases of discrimination and racism be properly documented, and disciplinary action and the outcome recorded, along with better records of why students are sent to Metro High School or expelled.

Raafa also was invited to the Superintendent’s Advisory Board, which will meet once a month with Bush.

The board will be made up of students of color from the four Cedar Rapids high schools.

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“We’re going to focus on equity and listening to student’s voices and suggestions they have for improvement with the hope of looking at this from a systemwide experience,” Bush said. “I know it will help me learn and grow as a superintendent.”

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

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