Hot Potato!

As always seems to happen, I thought I had time to develop some extended thoughts on something, and then all at once, little components of that something start sparking issues that I want to comment on.  In this case, the extended thought is about the multipronged strategy that the ICCSD BoE adopted in September to try to address Diversity Policy goals, and the new maps for the schools surrounding Archibald Alexander that are associated with that approach.

One prong of this strategy is a letter sent to the Municipalities within the ICCSD, asking each and the County to “codify policies regarding inclusionary zoning, re-invest in areas of our community where there is socio-economic isolation, and place restrictions and rental units and rental density.”  I’d like to eventually discuss the promises and pitfalls of this tactic in general, but that’ll have to wait.  The letter’s been sent, and according to this report in the Press-Citizen, was discussed at the Joint Governance Board on Monday.  And there, Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek, the most helpful member of the RGB quoted, offers a comment that’s deeply ironic in light of the Board’s approval of a map that makes almost no changes in the economic demographics in the schools in the Southernmost tip of the ICCSD:

Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek said from his city’s perspective, housing is a regional issue that requires a regional approach. But he said such a discussion will be a lengthy one, and he hopes it doesn’t distract from the importance of the district implementing the diversity policy in the meantime.

“I don’t know if our children can wait that long,” Hayek said.

So, it comes down to this.  The district says “We can’t implement the Diversity Policy until the municipalities make some changes to housing policy, so, we’ll go ahead and approve this map, which makes every school south of Kirkwood Avenue a high-poverty school for the next 5 years, and we’ll send them a letter.  And, in response, the executive from the most immediately helpful municipality says “Well, that’s great, but it will probably take us a while to do anything about it, so I sure hope you all move forward with implementing the Diversity Policy instead of waiting on us!

Really.  Its like a big game of Hot Potato! but with the education of our poorest kids in our poorest schools at stake.


ICCSD Letter to the Municipalities

There are probably simpler ways to do this, but in future columns I am going to need an online linkable reference to this letter, which the ICCSD sent to the associated municipalities that are included in it.  So I’m posting it’s text here, without comment, although I did clean up the typo.
Matt Hayek, Mayor of Iowa City
Gerry Kuhl, Mayor of North Liberty
Tim Kemp, Mayor of Hills
John Lundell, Mayor of Coralville
Louise From, Mayor of University Heights
Terrence Neuzil, Chairman of the Board of Supervisors

Dear Elected Officials:

We are writing today on behalf of the Iowa City Community School District Board of Directors. At the September 9, 201 Board Meeting, the Board of Directors voted to direct the District to contact the municipalities served by the Iowa City Community School District regarding the housing patterns and city and county housing regulations that impact the District. Specifically, the Iowa City Community School District Board of Directors would respectfully ask that each municipality and the county codify policies regarding inclusionary zoning, re-invest in areas of our community where there is socio-economic isolation, and place restrictions and rental units and rental density.

We understand that the main responsibility of the school system is to educate all children living within our community. We also understand that it is our local municipal governments’ responsibility to manage residential growth. While we are cognizant of the fact that it is not within the scope of the District’s duties to instruct municipalities on housing patterns and zoning regulations, we do know that these decisions have a direct impact on our educational system. Too often, the District is left trying to navigate a contradictory set of zoning regulations in an attempt to best plan for educating the students of one district who reside in six different municipal communities.

We are reaching out in hopes we can address the zoning and housing discrepancies in our community from a collective standpoint and can work together toward a unified solution. The District believes that there is the potential for a better approach that provides greater eneit to our entire community and specifically to our students.

Change of this magnitude will not take place overnight. As a first step, the District requests that each community codify inclusionary zoning in municipal planning. The District would suggest that the municipalities then formulate a joint task force to consider the needs of the community. The District is enthusiastic about being a part of this solution. We look forward to hearing about your work in this area and appreciate your collaboration as we work to educate the students of our community.

Chris Lynch
Board President

Steve F. Murley
Superintendent of Schools

Old Adages

As always, lots going on in the ICCSD.  I’m still trying to process the BoE work session I attended on Tuesday.  I’m cautiously optimistic, although many of my allies are devastated.  I’ll try to write that up later in the week or on the weekend, but until then I want to post this editorial that I wrote that was published in the Press-Citizen today. First though, a (very) little context, not only for the editorial, but also for the board work session and for what I hope to offer on this blog in the coming weeks.

That context could begin at several points, but I’ll start with the Board’s decision to reject the administration’s proposed redistricting maps at the end of last spring.  Those maps made some hopeful moves towards economic desegregation, but they also, I think, put too much of the burden of transitioning to new schools on lower income families.  To some degree, the shape of those maps reflected the mandates of the Diversity Policy, although in several instances Superintendent Murley had been unable to meet those mandates and had asked for waivers from compliance.  They also reflected a number of limitation and specifications on how those goals were met, based on a series of public forums and an online discussion board.  The earliest entries on this blog reflect some of the discussions at the forums for Cluster Two, here on the Southeast Side of Iowa City, and some of the complaints I was complaining about there helped shape those last two maps for the worse.

So, where we are now: The board asked the Superintendent to come back with new maps that “improved educational outcomes.”  Michael Tilley here asked residents of the district to take a survey not aimed at articulating public opinion, but aimed at pointing those taking it towards articulating more clearly how they weighed the values inherent in making boundary decisions which might improve educational outcomes.  I intended over the summer to write some posts arguing out my own responses to those questions, but never did. I still intend to do that, but in the context of the newest maps, which I heard described at the work session, but still haven’t seen.  Those maps, and the Board’s evaluation of them based on yet another set of public input forums will have to be the subject of a future post.  In general, I’m pleased to note that the Board and the community at large seem to have recognized that we have a problem with minority achievement, achievement by children from families of lower socioeconomic status, and educational equity in the district.  I’ve advocated for this to be addressed largely by redistricting schools so that our district isn’t socioeconomically segregated, working towards the goals set out in the Diversity Policy.  [Michael Tilley has a very thoughtful take on the spirit and letter of that policy here.]   Others have advocated that this be addressed largely through sending “additional resources” to those schools with high concentrations of poverty.  Michael  Tilley (again!) does yoeman work here, making it clear that, especially in a district that’s recently faced huge budget cuts, this would be a transfer of classroom teachers, from the schools with the wealthiest demographic to those with the poorest, and he quantifies just what the scale of such a transfer would be, and offers thoughts on how the two approaches might be mixed.

So, in that context, a Ed Barker, a former ICCSD high school principal argued in the Press-Citizen last week that “If the schools aren’t broken, don’t fix them. Tweak them.”  I responded with a long comment, that I turned into a guest editorial that came out today.  I think of this, in some ways, as an argument trying to establish some very basic principles for the best  way to solve these problems.

For the sake of completeness, and because I love to embed links in text, I’ll add a link here to information about capacity, demographics, and planned renovations for the schools in the ICCSD. As always, I welcome questions or comments about any of this.


Reading Ed Barker’s recent guest opinion (“If the schools aren’t broken, don’t fix them. Tweak them.”), I feel compelled to point out that old adages are great for starting conversations and anchoring short essays. They’re not so great as a basis for educational policy.

I’d respectfully ask the former West High principal to spend a week shadowing a teacher in one of our very high poverty schools (say one of the two where nearly 80 percent of the kids are on free and reduced lunch) before deciding the current system, where the real estate market determines a school’s demographics “ain’t broken.”

Can students get a good education at these schools? Yes, many can. But only because the teachers and staff shoulder tremendous, unsustainable burdens. I’d love to see what those teachers and staff could do for all the kids in their charge if we didn’t insist on economically segregating our schools.

I understand the temptation to try to just approach this by throwing money at the problem. But, here’s what happens when you try to “just add a few teachers” to the high poverty schools:

• First, you have to add enough to make the class sizes meaningfully small, say 15 to 17 at the kindergarten level. But since we get a fixed percentage of per-pupil funding to hire teachers with, this also means that we have to spend less on teachers at other schools across the district, meaning that class sizes there will go up significantly.

• Then, you have to keep doing this forever. Schools with high concentrations of families in poverty don’t just shift back on their own. In fact, they go the other direction, as No Child Left Behind policies encourage parents of means to seek other schools.

Are we really prepared to formalize and institutionalize a two-tiered public school system, with one tier for poor schools and another for affluent schools just because we’ve always done it this way?

Whole bodies of educational research show that kids perform better in economically balanced schools. This isn’t just moving the numbers around, its creating conditions where teachers have the time to give each student what they need, and its leveraging the fact that kids learn a significant amount of the basics of language from each other.

Children can enter kindergarten with as many as 30,000 words or as few as 3,000. Statistically, children in poverty are very likely to come in with the lower mark, and if three-fourths of a given class comes in with that lower mark, then social distribution and the teacher both have a lot more work to do.

Poverty creates barriers to educational success. Children who come in hungry, who come from families without a strong tradition of literacy, who don’t have the resources at home to find private tutoring or pay for private music lessons, whose parents are too busy working time-consuming low wage jobs to help with schoolwork or volunteer with school face serious hardship compared with other kids.

As Barker points out, we do have award-winning high schools, and high achieving students, but too many of our students from impoverished backgrounds and too many of our minority students are allowed to fall through the cracks.

Do all kids face barriers of some kind? Yes. But if a teacher doesn’t have a class where three-fourths of the kids are dealing with problems created by socioeconomic status, then all the kids are more likely to get the help they need with their personal challenges.

Are some kids able to just vault over these socioeconomic barriers? Yes, but when you insist on concentrating kids who face these barriers in the same schools, then vaulting over those barriers just becomes harder.

Do all kids in poverty face all of these barriers? No. No person or family is simply a marker for their socioeconomic status. But, statistically, many do face some combination of the problems above.

Are magnet schools or paired schools necessarily the answer? I don’t know. I’m glad that the School Board is proceeding cautiously on this and studying the idea to see if either of these approaches can help provide incentive-based desegregation and better educational opportunities.

I don’t know if those specific ideas will be appropriate for us, but I’m glad to see the board studying the problem rather than relying on old adages and comforting homilies to guide them as they begin the redistricting process.

Even more, I am glad that we are having a vigorous public conversation about the need to economically desegregate our schools, and that at least some, perhaps even all, members of our School Board seem to understand how critical this work is.

There currently are huge disparities between the economic populations of the schools in our rapidly growing district, ranging from 4 percent of the kids qualifying for free and reduced lunch in one school, to nearly 80 percent in two others. Did I mention that the district is rapidly growing? These disparities and the problems they create won’t fix themselves.

As difficult as it seems to find a solution now, it only becomes more and more difficult the longer we wait. We’re finally moving towards making the facilities that our kids are educated in equitable, and this process of expansion and new construction requires us to redraw boundaries anyway. There is no better time than now to redraw those boundaries in a way that better serves all of our students. It’s not going to get easier if we ignore it.


Special Meeting Tonight

Well, its a good thing that nobody depends on this space for news. I’ve done a poor job of keeping up with the changes in the ICCSD since the late spring. To summarize a couple of big ones: the Board rejected the administration’s final map proposals, and asked the Superintendent to come back in a couple of months with maps that “would lead to better educational outcomes.” That’s an unsatisfyingly vague directive, but its worth noting, on the hopeful side, that the Board did not rescind the Diversity Policy, but instead directed that the superintendent would be freed from meeting its exact numerical goals. I think that’s probably a good thing in the long run, since those goals were impossible to meet in Cluster two, and even getting as close as possible there, and meeting them in Cluster One proved problematic. Michael Tilley, who I’d like to nominate for MVB (Most Valuable Blogger) in the ICCSD, has thoughts about the spirit of the Diversity Policy and why it’s important, here. Michael also has a more recent post, regarding the first round of sketches of maps which the Administration brought to the Board at the last meeting.

I’ll have more to say about those maps, which included either/or proposals for Magnet schools at both Twain and Lincoln later. Suffice to say for now, since my beat is the Southeast Side, that I’m not thrilled that the options for Twain as a magnet likely won’t be implemented in the original time frame, and that the options for Twain as a non-magnet don’t seem to include a notable change in the school’s demographics. And that neither offers much relief for Grant Wood, or Hills.

But, speaking of nominations, this also happened: Board President Sally Hoelscher resigned, effective immediately, a few weeks ago. Since I’m linking to him on everything else, I’ll note that Michael Tilley took this as an opportunity to talk about civility and rational debate as it takes place (or doesn’t but should) in our district. Meanwhile, the Board elected Chris Lynch as the new President and began taking applications for a new member, who they have 30 days (from the former member’s resignation) to appoint. If no appointment is made in the allotted time, a special election is triggered.

There’s been some debate over the question of an appointment over an election. The Press Citizen editorial board split on the question, with some members favoring appointment from a broad field, some favoring appointing Phil Hemingway, the first runner-up in the recent election, and some favoring an election. Chris Liebig has argued that an election is more democratic than an appointment, and therefore better. I see some wisdom there, but am unconvinced. We elect board members to make decisions on our behalf, and according to the bylaws, the appointment of a board member to fill a vacancy is one of those decisions. If we’re accepting a value system that shades things more or less democratic instead of just democratic or not, I still don’t think this is out of bounds, and given how much time we’ve already lost in a very close timetable, I think its more valuable to move forward with an appointment, if The Board can. That’s hardly a foregone conclusion.

In the end, 10 individuals filed applications for the post. One was filed under the name Herbert Hoover. Funny! Of the other 9 currently living and non-pseudonymous filers, 3 were candidates in the last election: Phil Hemingway, Karla Cook, and Jason Lewis, the first, second, and fourth place runner’s up, successively. 5 said that they have no plans to run in the next election, and none said that they definitely did, perhaps because The Board let it be known that they’d give first consideration to applicants not interested in running next time out. Chris remarks in the post above that this would free that board member from “democratic accountability.” That could be true. I’d also argue though that it would weed out candidates merely looking for a launching pad to run from in 2015, and would discourage grandstanding and pandering.

Of those 9 applicants, only two, Orville Townsend and Karla Cook, meet both parts of this criteria, although its far from clear exactly how heavily any individual board members will be weighing either half. Cook also came in behind another applicant, Phil Hemingway, although Phil, despite his excellent attendance record at Board meetings as a community member, lacks prior Board experience. I don’t think that the fact that Cook finished behind Hemingway has to be a point against her. The only binding results form the last election are the winners, and a new election with different candidate might or might not endorse Hemingway so highly. Elections capture the will of a given electorate at a given moment in regard to a given set of candidates, issues, and discourses. But, it does create some noise, and given the tendentious nature of this kind of debate, its possible that The Board may opt for Townsend, who served on the Board in 1986-1989 and has an impressive record of advocacy on the part of minority community members.

The special meeting to try to make an appointment happens today at the ESC. I don’t have a clue how the votes will go, and I’m not making an endorsement here, though I will say that the two candidates who meet the publicly stated criteria are promising. I hope that they can appoint someone, and that it can be done on a 6-0 vote, and that the community member they appoint goes on to help the board do a better job of letting the public know what the implications of the board’s policy choices are, and of publicly weighing the values inherent in those choices.

Update: The Board voted 6-0 to appoint Orville Townsend Sr. to the vacant seat. His application is here.  I think this is a good outcome and am pleased to see the board in complete agreement on an important question.  I wasn’t there and haven’t seen the tape, but I am hearing that the debate was short.  If this weren’t a unanimous choice, I’d be more concerned about that. I think the fact that it was speaks to Mr. Townsend’s impressive record of service and the current members’ shared desire to appoint someone well outside of either of their own rough factions.  both factors suggest that he’ll have an positive impact on the Board.  Mr. Townsend will be sworn in at the Board meeting tomorrow night.

Second update: Chris, here, asks good questions about the idea of neutrality that some Board members cited in support of their choice of Director Townsend, who I think is being sworn in as I write this.  I like Chris’s general point about school board politics being politics in general, and that as such they should be issue-filled. But it seems likely to me that the Directors in question meant Townsend’s neutrality regarding the Board’s current factions, and not regarding any particular issue or ideology or party.  I just don’t see any other way to read the idea of him being a “neutral” choice that makes sense.  Chris also notes in comments that Townsend has the strong support of the Coalition for Racial Justice.  For me, these two things are hopeful signs for Director Townsend’s tenure.

Please Take Michael Tilley’s Survey about Values and Value Conflicts in Redistricting.

This is just a quick note.  I have a number of posts in the works that I can’t seem to get finished, but I want to use this space for something useful.  So, I’d encourage anyone reading this to go read Michael Tilley’s blog post and take his survey about the values and value conflicts in play in the process of redistricting in the ICCSD.  To save space I’ll say that I agree with the points you’ll read Michael make about the about the current board’s seeming inability to really publicly deliberate about the values at stake in much of their work.  I say this while still acknowledging that this board (with the aid of the previous one with which it shares 5 members) is poised to get more done in addressing longterm needs than many, many boards before them.  Still though, the purpose of electing a lay board rather than a group of technocrats is to find people who we trust to represent our values publicly as they weigh the courses of action that the Administrative team presents.  Whether its individual temperaments, fractured personal relationships, or the combination of district politics and the Iowa open meetings law that’s the cause, we rarely get to see the kind of deliberation that the process requires. 

Michael’s survey is not a “what is public opinion” tool.  Its a “how should we be thinking about these issues?” tool.  I’d encourage everyone who is interested in solving problems in the ICCSD to take it, and to think about how your answers there interplay with what you come to the process thinking is the right way to proceed forward.  Maybe it will shake something new loose.  I’d especially encourage the members fo the Board of Education to take the survey and to use it (not its results, which Michael notes reflect mostly the views of a small number of district activists) to guide their thinking as they interpret the new maps that the superintendent will be bringing to their attention soon.


Just a thought coming out of Thursday night’s cluster meeting: We don’t own our schools.

Since some time during the last School Board Election Cycle, I’ve been worried about the widespread and sometimes uncritical use of the term “neighborhood schools,” because it has so many meanings, and some of them lead back to the phrase’s origins and uses as a term of art in anti-integration politics. That’s a whole post in itself that I won’t get into here. But I will say this: local activist Sara Barron, who I’ve both agreed and disagreed with on various points, including the ICCSD Diversity Policy, and who uses the term, said something really valuable about those differences in meaning yesterday.

“I see strong benefits to having schools located in neighborhoods, and continuing our investment in these schools as our community grows. I am less convinced by the concept of a “neighborhood” as defined by a school. Get half a mile away from a school in any direction and this becomes, to me, an arbitrary distinction. I would say after the South elementary is built, I will have three elementary schools in my neighborhood: South, Twain, and Wood.”

For me, living I think just a little farther North than Sara, my neighborhood schools are Wood, Twain, and Longfellow. This is inexact, as is anything surrounding the term “neighborhood,” but I think its a useful and inclusive way to think about things. Because if you decide that a neighborhood and a single’ school’s attendance zone are always and essentially co-terminus, then any change to the attendance zone is necessarily understood as a disruption of the neighborhood. And that point you’ve just handed over your school’s demographics to the gentle hands of the real estate market. And we all know, or should know, what kind of work those hands have done for the causes of integration, fairness, and inclusion.

Based on my experience Thursday night, some people disagree with the notion that Wood, Twain, and Longfellow are my neighborhood schools, because one of those schools is their neighborhood school, in the singular sense. They fear (wrongly I believe) that a change to its border will destroy their neighborhood, and interfere with their plans to improve the neighborhood via the UniverCity program.

I believe those fears are misplaced, and that they’re unfortunate, since they play on and amplify old fears about one of my neighborhood schools. And what I want to suggest to the people laying out those fears and concerns on flyers and in public forums is this:

This is a public school system. We don’t own our schools. We are stewards, and we pass them on to the next set of parents and children. And if we’re good stewards, we pass them on better than they were when we came to them. And, I believe that stewardship needs to be done with the understanding that they all do better as a deeply connected and balanced set of points on a larger network, not as little enclaves with guarded and tightly patrolled borders.  Yes, we should use our schools and what they offer to improve our immediate neighborhoods. But not at the expense of other schools and other neighborhoods and the network of schools, and the community that network sits in and helps create. Because your school, just like my school, is in someone else’s neighborhood too.

*Edit 4/26/14 for clarity, tone, links.
*Edit 4/27/14 with more links, and more specific details.

Walkability, Integration, Misinformation

longfellow brochure

So, I’m hearing some unfortunate things flying around, based on the proposed changes to the Twain/Longfellow border here in East Iowa City. Some of it is word of mouth rumors, and some of it is printed on flyers distributed door-to-door by children in the Longfellow attendance zone. In advance of the Cluster Two meeting tomorrow night, I’d like to clear up some misinformation and provide some perspective and counter-information for any Longfellow parents who might read this, or really for anyone interested in the redistricting process underway in the ICCSD.

1. Contrary to rumors, Twain does have an ELP program, it’s quite an active one. Twain teachers also do a great job on differentiation in the classroom, providing challenging work for students that need it whether they’re in that program or not.

2. While the proposed change does mean that some families would travel farther to a new school, they distance they would travel is not greater than many families travel now to both Twain and Longfellow. If traveling that distance is in fact the hardship that the flyer claims, why is it ok for other families to make that trek now, but not for families affected by this change?

3. Similarly, the flyer greatly overstates the actual distance between Twain and Longfellow for rhetorical effect, in several places. Many homes within the proposed area are equidistant or nearly so from both schools. A small few are actually closer to Twain.

4. The flyer claims that there is no data available to support the idea that this change would increase socioeconomic diversity at Twain. This is not true. In fact, if you go to the ICCSD website and look at the proposed boundary changes map, and the FRL density map, the effect is clear.

5. The flyer claims that there are “certainly” ways that the goal of achieving economic diversity can be achieved without making this particular change. Yet, despite this certainty, no alternate plans are suggested. If this is the case, I will be happy to see people show up at the meeting on Thursday and propose their own changes, as long as those plans don’t require people less affluent than those in the affected zone to travel even farther, or change schools more than one time.

6. The suggestion in the flyer that families who currently own their homes in this area would rather sell and relocate than send their kids to Twain, thus “decimating” the UniverCity housing program, is both hyperbolic and, frankly, insulting. Please ask Twain parents about their experiences with Twain and its teachers before making such a claim.

7. The flyer claims that this change would undermine the Longfellow neighborhood, but conveniently defines “the Longfellow neighborhood” as Longfellow’s current attendance zone.

8. The flyer implicitly and in some places explicitly argues that “walkability” for those residents affected by the change, and for those lucky enough to live close to a school, is more important than socioeconomic diversity and the need to alleviate the barriers imposed by concentrations of poverty within any school. Is this really where our values lie as a community or as a neighborhood large enough that it contains both schools? Given the choice do we really value walkability for a few more than integration and opportunity for all?