Education

Iowa City schools creating ombudsman position to help students navigate racial bias complaints

Staff to engage in professional development on restorative practices, culturally responsive teaching

IOWA CITY — The Iowa City Community School District is creating an ombudsman position — an official appointed to investigate complaints — to help students, families and staff navigate and report racial bias concerns as one of its top priorities to address racial inequality in the district.

During a school board meeting earlier this week, the board discussed which of its nine administrative action steps toward diversity, equity and inclusion should be prioritized, including creating an ombudsman position, providing professional development to staff in the areas of restorative practices and culturally responsive teaching, and adding evaluation standards for all employees addressing fair and equitable treatment of students and staff.

“We’ve seen some of our students gravitate toward social media to tell stories about their experience that hasn’t been positive in our district,” Interim Superintendent Matt Degner said. “An ombudsman position would be an advocate (for students) and work with students to try to rectify their experience.”

Earlier this summer, the school board held listening sessions with the Iowa Freedom Riders and the district’s Equity Committee.

School board President Shawn Eyestone said the board can create all the policies they want, but they won’t mean anything if there is not a culture change.

“What are we teaching, whose teaching it and how are we teaching it? Those things stand out to me,” Eyestone said. “If those are done really well, I think that will drive culture change.”

The school board is creating a professional development schedule for the 2020-2021 academic year that includes professional development in the areas of restorative practices, cultural proficiency, culturally responsive teaching and equity.

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A goal that the board says goes hand-in-hand with that professional development is an evaluation standard for all employees specifically addressing fair and equitable treatment to students, families, colleagues and supervisors.

The district is also looking at developing an Ethnic Studies course this year that would be required for students before graduation. The course could be offered as soon as the 2021-2022 school year.

“When we think about anti-racist teaching, it involves teaching some hard history and some difficult concepts, and it may be different from the way it was taught to us in school and allows our students to see more of themselves in that curriculum,” Degner said.

Degner said he knows anti-racist teaching needs to be incorporated into every subject, not just social studies.

“There’s work to do in other curricula, he said.

The district also will look at course enrollment data specifically for Advanced Placement and honors classes — and work to recruit and retain more Black and brown students in those classes, Degner said.

“There’s more work to do when we break down the demographics of who is in which course and why that is happening,” Degner said. “When we talk about achievement gaps, a lot of times it’s opportunity gaps.”

Just as important is for a good anti-racist curriculum to be presented well, school board member JP Claussen said.

“You can have a really good curriculum, and it can be presented poorly,” he said.

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

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