Education

Milestone: African-American leads Cedar Rapids school board

Retired educator Nancy Humbles supports diversity efforts

McKinley Middle School student Omarie Arrington (left) shows Cedar Rapids school board president Nancy Humbles the nice comment a teacher left on a report he wrote. Humbles, thought to be the first African-American to lead the school board, visited the school Wednesday. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
McKinley Middle School student Omarie Arrington (left) shows Cedar Rapids school board president Nancy Humbles the nice comment a teacher left on a report he wrote. Humbles, thought to be the first African-American to lead the school board, visited the school Wednesday. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — The new president of the Cedar Rapids school board, Nancy Humbles, is believed to be the first African-American to lead the board.

Humbles was appointed president in September after nearly a decade on the board.

In an interview, Humbles said it’s an honor to be the board president — a position filled by vote of the board members — “regardless of race, creed, gender or class.”

“But as an African-American, ... it is an honor, and someone always has to be first,” said Humbles, 67. “And there will be others who follow. There always has to be a first, and I take pride in that, too.”

Humbles was director of the University of Iowa’s Center for Diversity and Enrichment until 2014. After retiring, she has organized events for the NAACP and served on the Area Substance Abuse Council.

As board president, Humbles said she is looking forward to leading as the district implements a strategic plan to diversify its workforce.

While students in Iowa are becoming more diverse — about one in four students is a child of color, according to the Iowa Department of Education — more than 97 percent of Iowa teachers are white.

“For me as an African-American, and I’ve had children in the school district, it’s important to African-American children that they see someone in the classroom that looks like them in a position of leadership,” Humbles said. “I’m so proud that the district realizes that and that we’re putting a plan together.”

The district is in the early months of a three-year plan that aims to improve efforts to recruit and retain teachers of color.

Like school staff, school board members tend to be disproportionately white, said Lisa Bartusek, executive director of the Iowa School Board Association.

“What we see typically, and I’ve been doing for 25 years, is that the diversity of the adults in the education sector — in schools, on boards, teachers and superintendents — has not kept pace with the diversity of students,” Bartusek said. “I think it’s important for our state that we cultivate diversity on school boards, so that students and community members see that school boards reflect the diversity of the community.”

In her new role as board president, Humbles said she also looks forward to backing the district as it implements a facilities plan, which would replace many of its elementary schools with new buildings and to promoting “the positive things going on in our schools.”

“I’ve been in education for over 30 years, and I’m very passionate about educating our children and making a difference in students’ lives,” she said.

District spokesman Akwi Nji said Humbles is the first African-American board president since at least 1964. The district does not have information for earlier years, she said.

Humbles succeeds John Laverty, who remains on the board, as president. Mary Meisterling was appointed vice president.

Laverty, board president since 2015, said board members tend to rotate in as president every few years. Humbles was board vice president last year, and Laverty said they worked closely so Humbles “got a sense of what it was like to be president of the board.”

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“All of us are excited,” Laverty said, referencing the other board members. “It’s meaningful for the whole community that there is a leader of a major institution in our community that represents the diversity of the community, and certainly of our school district.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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