Few travelers on path to equity

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What’s most disappointing is how few came to participate.

There were three things I wanted to do Thursday night. I could have watched Jon Stewart bid his final farewell to Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” I was tempted to gather with political friends and family to watch members of the GOP presidential field face off in their first televised debate. But I chose to attend a local meeting at the Coralville Public Library.

Specifically, I sat with about 15 people as Kingsley Botchway, Iowa City Community School District’s relatively new equity and staffing director, provided an update and outline of the district’s equity plan. Then I listened as about half of those gathered offered concerns and feedback.

It was both an uplifting and sobering experience.

While most news reports (and diner discussions I’ve been privy to) have focused on the district’s desire to bring more people of color into staffing positions, the working document, initially brought before the school board last spring, is much more comprehensive.

The Iowa City Community School District headquarters in Iowa City. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)
The Iowa City Community School District headquarters in Iowa City. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

With it in hand, Botchway is poised to challenge district culture by integrating a new tolerance or “comfortableness,” if you will, into all existing programs.

“One thing we don’t want to do,” he said, “is add one more thing to the already full plate before our teachers and support staff. It must be a part of what’s already there, not something additional. That’s important for our staff, but also important for success.”

The PBIS student reward program, for instance, should have the components of multicultural understanding and training at its foundation. Classrooms and other public spaces within the district should be developed and staged as welcoming, planned through the eyes of the district’s varied student and parent population.

“One of the comments that has really stood out for me,” Botchway said after the meeting, “was from a Hispanic parent who indicated a lack of understanding of teacher expectations. Because of this, the parent was less likely to attend parent-teacher conferences or be an effective advocate for the child. That’s a cultural difference, one that I’d not considered, and one that we can overcome.”

Equity does not begin and end with hiring people of color — although staffing remains a plan priority since about a third of students, but only 5 percent of teachers are people of color. Support staff fares better, with about 10 percent being people of color, but administrators, despite recent hires, have little diversity. Equity, according to the plan summary, is creating “conditions that allow all to reach their potential.”

It is an issue that Iowa City and other school districts throughout Iowa are tackling, one that many parents and educational leaders believe is paramount to providing all school children opportunities to thrive. It’s part disproportionate contact, part community engagement.

But in Iowa City specifically, where talk of new boundaries, school closures and an overall administration distrust dominates, only 15 people attended this second community meeting. The first public meeting, held while I was away on vacation, garnered about 20 participants, Botchway said. Sadly enough, he appeared resigned, if not satisfied, with the turnout.

Where are those who have voiced concern with the new and limiting public commenting policy at school board meetings?

“We are being told this plan is long-term, that it might take five, 10 or 15 years to accomplish,” said audience member Julie Van Dyke, who has long been a part of conversations surrounding the district. “I understand that. But it is also true that we’ve been looking at this problem for years.”

She advocated for public benchmarks and accountability. “How do we know if we are making progress or if we aren’t if the public isn’t given data points?” she asked.

Van Dyke appreciated that the plan summary was being offered in several different languages, but questioned why the full plan was not available via the district’s website.

“I believe in you,” she told Botchway. “I have faith in you as an individual and as a leader in this position.” Overall, however, Van Dyke was skeptical the district will change its culture and rebuild trust among constituents, drawing nods from others in the audience.

It’s similar to the recruitment issues facing the district. Prospective educators may have a good opinion of one or two staff members or administrators, but such assessments must be weighed against recent videos or reports of questionable minority contact as well as regional and state statistics on people of color.

District staff aren’t only choosing to be a part of the school, they are looking to be part of a community. And they want an equitable welcoming from both.

To that end, perhaps Botchway, who continues to serve on the city council and has contacts throughout the communities that live within ICCSD’s boundaries, is best positioned to make headway. But, as my father would say, he has a long row to hoe when only a handful of residents are willing to engage on a Thursday night.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on August 9, 2015. Photo credit: Brian Ray/The Gazette