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Diversity In Iowa Schools: The Elephant in the Room

Sandhya Dirks

Sandhya Dirks

Demographics in Iowa are changing and perhaps no where is this fact more visible than in the classroom. In the first of a three part series about diversity in Iowa schools, Iowa Public Radio’s Sandhya Dirks takes a look at the public outcry over a diversity policy in the Iowa City School District. It’s a policy that is exposing deep racial and cultural divides in a part of the state that prides itself on acceptance. 

If you took a snapshot of any school board meeting where the Iowa City School District Diversity Policy is up for discussion, the picture that develops isn’t pretty, and the conversation isn’t comfortable. Julie VanDyke says those opposed to the policy say are for diversity, at least up until the point where it threatens to change the status quo.  She says it is time to act, telling the school board: "All I’ve heard all night is everybody who stands up here against the policy is wearing hundred and fifty dollar shoes, or their kids are wearing two hundred dollar shoes."

But parents like Renee Laquana say it is not fair to play the race card, "I really don’t think it is helpful to imply that folks who are against this particular policy are classist, racist, or any other pejorative term."

So what is this policy and why does it have the community up in arms? 

The policy doesn’t define diversity through race. Rather its aim is to even out the number of kids who receive federal assistance known as free and reduced lunch across the district. As it is right now, critics say a handful of the schools are shouldering the majority of the burden. 

At Mark Twain Elementary the lunch menu is soup, burgers, and french fries. Alongside the cafeteria window, a row of kids lines up to pick their lunch, and decide if they will in fact, have fries with that. Almost eighty percent of these children are eligible for the federal assistance program known as free and reduced lunch. That makes this the school with the highest rate of kids in poverty in the Iowa City school district, according to Kate Moreland. 

Moreland is the Director of Communications for the school district. She says at some other schools only six percent of kids receive free and reduced lunch. 

That  inequity concerned Sarah Swisher, an Iowa City school board member. Swisher says poverty and the achievement gap are linked, "it doesn’t take a scientist to see, that the higher poverty there was in the schools the worse the test scores." 

Swisher says that is why she helped craft this policy, she says it is time for Iowa City to face the fact that it is changing. "Iowa City has had this growth in families in poverty over the last few years and it’s been somewhat dramatic." 

In other words, the region is going through growing pains. Iowa City school district superintendent Stephen Murley says yes, the district is changing, and like in any discussion about a changing community there is a blurry mix of not just class, but race. 

He says in order to bridge the achievement gap, the district needs to define who it is going to help, "are we talking about students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, are we talking about racial and ethnic minorities? Or is this a Venn diagram and we are looking for an overlap of those two?" 

Like with a Venn diagram, it’s hard to pry apart race and class. And Murley says, they are both hard subjects to talk about. He says he thinks class is the stickier subject, but Democratic legislator David Jacoby of Corallville -- which is in the school district-- says he believes race is the real taboo, "were afraid of getting at the core of what is going on, and I know people shy away but it truly is what is the frustration or the concern with the Chicago connection." 

The Chicago connection is an unspoken factor in a lot of the conversations about changing demographics in Iowa City. Dorothy Whiston is a pastor at First Baptist Church who ministers to African American families, many of whom migrated here from big cities like Chicago. She says that  "as the public housing stock in Chicago in got so dilapidated they decided not to rehabilitate it, but to replace it people had to move." 

And they moved here. In Whiston's opinion, Iowa City isn’t as progressive as it likes to think, "people in this town do not like to talk about race. It is again the elephant in the room." 

Parent Valerie Horton says she’s experienced that elephant first hand. She came here from Chicago eight years ago. "Coming to Iowa City where majority is Caucasian and for the most part, you can walk up to someone that is Caucasian and they will be willing to help you, because everybody don’t have that racism thing in the forefront. But when you start messing with the schools they kids go to, the businesses that they have, and their neighborhoods, you bringing their property value down?  Then it start coming out." 

And she believes it’s not likely to go away. Right now around fifteen percent of students in the Iowa City school district are racial minorities. That number is only expected to grow. In Iowa City, I’m Sandhya Dirks, Iowa Public Radio News.

Sandhya Dirks