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Iowa Public Radio's Culture and Diversity reports go in-depth to examine what it is like to be a minority in Iowa. The reports look at the issues, history, cultural traditions, challenges and future of each diverse group of people that are part of Iowa. Correspondent Rob Dillard and other IPR reporters tell the stories by talking with the leaders and having intimate discussions with some members of each group, and taking listeners to the places that exemplify these communities.Iowa Public Radio's Culture and Diversity reporting is funded in part by The Principal Financial Group Foundation and The Dr. Richard Deming Foundation.

Diversity in Iowa Schools: Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Sandhya Dirks

Yesterday we heard how the public outcry over the Iowa City School District Diversity policy continues to fuel a bitter debate in Iowa City. Like much of Iowa, Iowa City is facing a changing population and with that has comes a widening achievement gap. In the second part of a series about diversity in Iowa schools, reporter Sandhya Dirks takes a closer look at balancing school integration with divided neighborhoods and a new influx of residents. 

In the Iowa City school district the big question is how the new diversity policy will actually work. Henry Harper is one of the few African Americans who came to the school board meetings. He says he’s kind of an ambassador for other minority parents have been hearing about the meetings, even watching them on television. He says they are concerned that decisions are being made about them, without them, "I don’t see nobody on there that look like me. Who they talking about, I don’t know?  They talking about bussing, they gonna bus my kid?" 

Pastor Dorothy Whiston of First Baptist Church in Iowa City ministers to African American families. She says they are wary, "African Americans I know have mixed feelings about the policy, because they are much more comfortable in majority or at least very mixed schools racially. They do have concerns about being bussed over to the upper middle class white school and being one of five kids in the school." 

Concern about bussing crosses color lines. It seems a lot of parents are afraid of their kids being snatched up out of their familiar territory. 

According to school board member Sarah Swisher that was never on the table, "there was never any intention to employ any forced bussing. Never, never."

Swisher says bussing is a loaded word, and she worries it is he being used to stoke fear, "I think if people use term bussing there implying huge community discord, violence, riots, racism." 

Swisher says that’s a misdirect, she says the policy is about student achievement.  She quotes studies that show academic performance levels drop across the board when there's a high concentration of poor students. She says the policy is just trying to address that by balancing each schools percentage of kids who qualify for free and reduced lunch.  Right now some schools have as many as eighty percent of their students enrolled in the federal assistance program,  in other schools it is as low as six.

Swisher says Iowa City is changing, bringing with it new challenges, like how to get growth that is balanced  while maintaining the close knit neighborhood school model so essential to Iowa. Democratic State Representative Dave Jacoby says it’s like walking a tightrope, "we like to stay in our neighborhoods, we like our children to go to neighborhood schools. So it’s that balance between the neighborhood feeling and also the balance in the school district."

But is that balance possible?  Parent Valerie Horton doesn't think so, "y'all want to make it even? It don’t make no sense to me." 

Horton qualifies for federal help with housing known as section eight.  She says  section eight housing is concentrated in certain neighborhoods and that means  poverty is also concentrated there. She says the answer is simple; if communities are integrated,  schools will be too. Horton says that's "because there would be housing in all these districts. And it would be an equal amount of African Americans, Sudanese, Hispanic, Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, you know, everywhere, and then you wouldn’t have to worry about whose percentage of free lunch is bigger."

Horton believes Iowa City has hidden its changing population by squirreling them away in certain neighborhoods. School board member Jeff McGinness says it’s true, housing is key. McGinness voted against the diversity policy. He says the school board can only do so much.  In order to get at the root causes of the achievement gap in Iowa City schools the towns that make up the district needs to act, "what we need them to agree on is a housing development plan, because that’s the only way it can work. There’s got to be some balance on how we are going manage growth in our district. Without that, everything that we do, every two three years we could have to redistrict as a result." 

McGinness says you just can’t integrate neighborhood schools when the city that feeds the schools is so divided. Some school board members have suggested magnet schools, that would encourage kids to cross town.   But the future of the policy remains unclear in terms of how it will actually be implemented.

Iowa City School District isn't unique, a number of other districts in Iowa have diversity policies. And with the demographics of the state continuing to change that number is likely to go up. In Iowa City, I’m Sandhya Dirks, Iowa Public Radio News.