“A Very Different Elementary School”

I have a number of longer posts brewing, but this should be short enough to dash off.  Unfortunately, it’s not very sweet.

Today at lunch, I was sitting next to some co-workers discussing househunting.  One was excited about a house they’re looking at in Coralville.  After running through a list of (mostly good) qualities of the house itself, the speaker offered this final point:

“And, best of all, this one is right around the corner from Coralville Central Elementary!  The other one was near Kirkwood.  That’s a very different elementary school.”

Kirkwood Elementary is one of the 5 high poverty elementary schools in the ICCSD.  Its the only one of these in Coralville, and the only Elementary school in Coralville with a significant racial minority population. The words “very different elementary school” were accompanied by the kind of head-slightly-downward-and-eyebrows-raised look that says “this is significant and you know why.” Every person at the table was white. The speaker was dressed professionally.  The conversation indicated they had some latitude in choosing where to live, but that money was still a consideration.

I’m not writing this to demonize the speaker in this overheard conversation.  I’m not interested in parsing whether the person making this statement “is” racist or classist.  People share  ideas and fears and worries among friends that don’t reflect their best selves, and these words were not meant for a stranger’s ears.  My interest is the words themselves, though  I don’t want to oversell their evidentiary value, since this is clearly just an anecdote.  But, if I were looking for a textbook example of the kind of decision making that leads to high poverty schools remaining so or getting worse over time, I’d certainly have found one here.

I’m noting this here on the blog not only because segregation and integration in the ICCSD are core concerns, but also because there was some discussion of the Demographic imbalances between schools in the district at the Board meeting last week.  As these discussions continue, its helpful for all involved to remember that the demographics of our school zones are not a steady-state phenomenon, and that we need an active policy approach to keep ordinary people’s ordinary decision making from making these disparities worse.

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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.
To:
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.
Sincerely,

Chris Lynch
Board President

Steve F. Murley
Superintendent of Schools