Public Safety

Inequity will not be 'swept under the rug,' Cedar Rapids schools director of culture and climate says

Justin Blietz started new role July 1, working with students, staff on equity issues within the district

Justin Blietz is director of culture and climate for Cedar Rapids schools. He is photographed Nov. 5 at his Cedar Rapids
Justin Blietz is director of culture and climate for Cedar Rapids schools. He is photographed Nov. 5 at his Cedar Rapids home. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids schools director of culture and climate Justin Blietz is determined not to let the coronavirus or derecho sideline the district’s efforts toward equity.

Blietz is doing a lot of listening, especially to students who are a part of the district’s four Black Student Unions in each of the high schools, and hears them when they say progress is not being made quickly enough.

The district this year launched new equity initiatives, including creating a Superintendent’s Advisory Group, to begin anti-racism efforts and is pursuing hiring more teachers of color, providing professional development for staff in equity and diversity and improving family and community engagement.

Blietz said the school district “cannot shy away from this work.” The school system was historically created by white people, and will continue to benefit the same white people until all voices are represented, he said.

“Systemic change requires us to lean into discomfort and embrace pushback if we want to achieve systemic change,” Blietz said.

As a white man who “has a lot of privilege,” Blietz believes it’s his responsibility to use that privilege to drive equity.

“My voice might be heard in certain spaces where others might not be,” he said.

Blietz is also working with staff of color to listen to their experiences in the workplace.

Earlier this year, the district sent out a survey to Black employees to hear what their experience is like and what support they need in the district. The district is working through the results of the survey, and the work is “in its infancy,” Blietz said.

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Blietz, who previously was the associate principal at McKinley STEAM Academy, started his role as director of culture and climate on July 1.

He graduated from Jefferson High School and five years ago moved back to Cedar Rapids to work for the district.

“I’m really excited about the opportunity to be back home and have an impact on the community where I was raised,” he said.

Blietz has always valued working toward equity in education. While at McKinley, he assisted in implementing restorative justice practices, which incorporate accountability and repairing harm in the disciplinary process.

There are deficiencies in educating students of color, students learning English and those in special education in Cedar Rapids schools.

“Our white students are achieving at a different rate than our Black and brown students. That’s not a secret,” Blietz said.

The results of Iowa’s new statewide assessments from December 2019 highlighted this gap and the district set goals of reducing it by 20 percent and having 80 percent of all students scoring at least proficient by 2022.

The district results were close to statewide averages — 70 percent of students scored proficient or advanced in English language arts, 70 percent in math and 57 percent in science.

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“Our achievement data is riddled with disproportionality, our discipline data is full of disproportionality, and the way students and families perceive our efforts is disproportionate,” Blietz said. “We can talk about our efforts and intentions but the rate of change and effort won’t be enough until these gaps are eliminated. This has to be prioritized as our No. 1 focus.”

This year, the district implemented family engagement phone calls for families to have regular contact with their child’s teacher. Teachers are required to have a 15-minute virtual conversation with the student’s parents once a month.

The calls were implemented after listening to community members hear that they don’t feel like they are a part of the student’s learning process.

Blietz said this helps parents know at what level their child is performing and feel like a “collaborative partner” in the education.

“What we’ve done through family engagement work is create a plan to ensure every family and students is being communicated with in a way that empowers them to support their child’s learning,” he said.

Blietz said racism and inequity will not be “swept under the rug.”

“We see students using their voice saying, ‘We’re not OK with this.’ I’m very proud,” he said.

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

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