Equity & Diversity

Iowa Grapples With Growing Diversity

By Karla Scoon Reid — October 11, 2000 9 min read

Education leaders in Iowa are looking beyond the nation’s long-standing black and white desegregation debate in an attempt to create schools that are welcoming to students of all racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds.

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The Iowa Department of Education has posted “Building Inclusive Schools and Communities” as three separate documents, each requiring Adobe’s Acrobat Reader. They are:

The ambitious plan, “Building Inclusive Schools and Communities,” aims to reshape Iowa’s public schools to embrace multiculturalism at a time when that heartland state is experiencing noticeable demographic change. The plan, a proposed update of the state’s school desegregation policies, also calls for making schools accountable for improving the academic achievement of students from poor and minority families.

The initiative comes as the makeup of Iowa’s population is shifting—in some places dramatically. Although the traditionally agricultural Midwestern state and its schools remain predominantly white, members of racial and ethnic minorities—African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian- Americans—have become the fastest-growing segment of the population.

Minority students made up 10 percent of Iowa’s 496,000-student enrollment last fall, compared with just 2.5 percent in 1985. Students in the state’s schools today speak 32 different languages, Iowa officials say, and the number of students enrolled in English-as-a-second-language programs has tripled since 1986.

Iowa’s diversity, moreover, has spread beyond its urban areas. In Des Moines, its largest city, 28 percent of the school district’s 31,500 students are from minority groups. But in the small rural community of Storm Lake in northwest Iowa, minority students make up 43 percent of the 1,850 students.

This trend is one that demographers expect to continue in the years ahead as immigrant families fan out to areas that traditionally have had less ethnic diversity. And the demographic change would only accelerate under a plan being discussed by Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, to lure more immigrants to the state to bolster its aging workforce and strengthen its economy.

Responding to that reality, the Iowa board of education, which is leading the inclusive- schools initiative, approved a statement and set of principles in August that will undergird the policies, rules, and laws adopted to carry out the plan. The state education department plans to work with various committees and groups to draft such policies for board approval next May.

“We want to maximize the capacity of each student to be able to get along with others and respect others as part of the learning experience,” board President Corine A. Hadley said in a recent interview. “We want equity to be inseparable from the school improvement process.”

Matters of Principle

The inclusive-schools initiative emerged from an intensive, two-year review of the state’s 28-year-old desegregation guidelines.

While the federal courts historically have been the most prominent players in the desegregation of the nation’s public schools, it was the state that directed Iowa’s urban districts to come up with integration plans in the early 1970s. Iowa districts opted for voluntary busing, magnet programs, and open enrollment to diversify their schools.

In the principles it laid out for the new initiative, the state school board says teachers must instruct students about diversity for them to succeed in the global economy. One principle states that students learn essential skills by attending classes with students from different backgrounds.

The effort calls for multicultural education training for staff members, the recruitment and retention of school employees of varied backgrounds, and additional resources for schools serving poor students. Under the plan, race will no longer be the sole factor in the state’s nondiscrimination guidelines; students’ ethnicity, languages, sexual orientation, disabilities, and economic status are also to be considered in the upcoming policy changes.

Proposed policies will be presented to the state board in March.

Providing a foundation for discussions about inclusive schools, Iowans will get a detailed account of the academic-achievement gap in their neighborhood schools between members of various groups for the first time this school year. The state has directed its 374 districts to report to the public the standardized-test scores of students by race, ethnicity, and poverty level.

Ted Stilwill, Iowa’s state schools chief, predicted that the reports would cause some “consternation and conversation.” He said the reports would be used to determine which schools and groups of students need the most support.

What strategies will be used to foster inclusive schools and address the achievement gap—or how much such efforts may cost—has yet to be determined.

Perhaps because of that lack of detail, the plan has met with little vocal opposition so far, said Tom Andersen, the Iowa education department’s consultant on equity and school improvement, said. Still, Mr. Andersen said he expects that the effort will be criticized once more specifics emerge, especially in light of the public response the governor’s immigration plan has provoked.

Although that immigration proposal is only one element of a broader effort to stimulate the sluggish pace of population growth in the state, it has elicited strong reactions among some Iowans. A poll conducted by the Des Moines Register last month found that 58 percent of the people surveyed said they would oppose a state policy aimed at encouraging immigrants to move to the state, while 34 percent supported such an effort.

How lawmakers will respond to the initiative also is unclear. Sen. Donald B. Redfern, a Republican who is the chairman of the Senate education committee, said that legislators would consider any proposal from the state board, but that the focus in the coming legislative session would be on teacher pay and student achievement.

Desegregation advocate Gary A. Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University, said most states have given up on desegregation and are ignoring the issue entirely. Mr. Orfield, who was invited to speak to Iowa’s state board members in 1998 about desegregation, says Iowa is “ahead of the game.”

“They’re thinking about the right issues,” he said. “Whether they do something courageous is the next step.”

As Iowans wait to see how the state board’s inclusive-schools initiative will be translated into policy, some people believe the effort is long overdue.

Elizabeth Salinas Newby, the administrator of the Iowa Division of Latino Affairs, said the state’s schools are failing to meet Hispanic students’ needs. She said schools have “hit and miss” programming and lack sufficient ESL teachers.

Traevena Potter-Hall, the director of the Iowa Commission on the Status of African-Americans, questioned whether the state will follow through."There are lots of initiatives that people take on with the best of intentions,” Ms. Potter-Hall said, “but if there’s no funding, no follow- through, no accountability ... then it’s just dead in the water.”

Still, Jennifer Hartman, the principal of Elk Run Elementary School in Elk Run Heights, said she was encouraged by the state board’s effort because she’s seen the benefits of diversity firsthand. She said the ESL program at Elk Run, where minorities make up 39 percent of the 280 students, has enriched the school.

“Students as well as adults are learning that all of us are alike in so many ways,” she said.

‘Not There Yet’

While many people describe Iowa as a warm, welcoming state, many also say that a comprehensive public-awareness campaign is needed to cultivate a better understanding of minority issues in the state and its schools.

“It’s hard to get [Iowans] to think of diversity as a strength, and their sameness as a problem rather than an asset,” Mr. Andersen said. “We’re not there yet. Not all kids feel welcomed or supported in all of our schools.”

As policymakers debate making multiculturalism a central part of Iowa’s future, diversity has already changed the makeup of a growing number of districts.

Storm Lake, a community of 10,000, has seen immigrants move to town for jobs in the city’s pork- and turkey-processing plants. In 1987, the district had four minority students. This year, 805 of Storm Lake’s 1,850 students are from minority groups, mostly Hispanic and Laotian. English is not the first language of about 750 students.

Superintendent Bill R. Kruse said that more resources are needed to teach students English, and that the state’s new emphasis on making schools accountable for improved student achievement could help highlight that need.

“Our newcomers come with a lot of talent,” Mr. Kruse said. “But they just can’t get over the language.”

Diverse classrooms are the norm in some school districts, like Waterloo, in northeastern Iowa. Waterloo has had a sizable African-American community for many years, and in the past four years, the city has become home to hundreds of Bosnian refugees. The district’s Elk Run Elementary School, has two full-time translators—one speaks Bosnian, the other Spanish—to help with the school’s 104 ESL students.

About 33 percent of Waterloo’s 10,800 students are members of minority groups.

Arlis Swartzendruber, the superintendent of the Waterloo schools, said educators must focus on staff and curriculum development, high-quality reading programs, and tutoring to achieve results.

“We need to do what’s right instructionally,” he said, “because I believe that’s what counts.”

Even then, he added, there’s no guarantee the achievement gap will be closed.

The West Liberty schools are trying a different approach to raise test scores and encourage diversity. The 1,300-student district, located about 15 miles north of Iowa City, has the state’s only dual-language-immersion program, which is aimed at improving Spanish-speaking students’ language skills while teaching English-speaking students a second language.

Since the late 1980s, many Hispanic families have been lured to West Liberty by jobs in meat-packing plants. In 10 years, the proportion of minority students in the district has jumped from 26 percent to 45 percent.

Under the immersion program, students at West Elementary School spend half their day learning in Spanish and the other half in English. The K-2 school has 158 of its 370 pupils enrolled in the program, which started with just kindergartners three years ago.

Students in Suzanne Yeast’s kindergarten classroom sing songs, recite the alphabet, and listen to stories like the “Three Little Pigs” in Spanish and English.

W. Lee Hoover, the superintendent of the West Liberty school system, said his students have an advantage over those attending more homogeneous schools.

“We’re well on our way toward looking at the individual and not necessarily the ethnicity,” he said.

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