Iowa’s geographic diversity is evident in our vast cornfields and farmland set against sprouting urban skylines. Our 3.1 million residents are also becoming more racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse, which is reflected in our state’s public schools.
Twenty years ago, 90 percent of Iowa’s public school students were white. Today, 77 percent of our student enrollment is white, 10 percent is Hispanic, and 6 percent is black. More than 100 languages are spoken in the households feeding into the Des Moines school system, which is Iowa’s largest urban district.
Students and families with diverse backgrounds have different ways of interpreting the many issues that arise in day-to-day school life. There are differences in how we communicate, make decisions, and act toward each other in and out of the classroom. Reaching all of our students and being sensitive to their needs, regardless of race, is an important priority for the Iowa State Education Association. One way we are addressing this need is by offering classes in the association’s professional-development academy.
For the past two years, the academy’s diversity classes, which are taught by licensed trainers, have grown in popularity. Since they were first offered in 2015, we have seen a 38 percent increase in participants taking the “Black Lives Matter” course; a 68 percent increase in those taking the “Far From Home: Building a Supportive Classroom for Refugee Students” course; and a 41 percent increase in those taking the “New Iowans” course.
While it is still too early to measure success, this uptick in participation shows that educators are working hard to keep up with the growing student diversity in their classrooms. Teachers recognize that Iowa’s demographics will continue to change, and they want to understand how best to relate to their students.
The Iowa State Education Association has an active multicultural committee, which has worked hard to recruit people of color to union leadership positions at the local and state levels. Our future goals include recruiting a more racially balanced leadership team at the national level and studying how we can get more people leading the classroom who share cultural backgrounds with those they teach.
We also want to see more children of color eventually enter the teaching profession. We know that some of the best recruiters are teachers themselves. Having a racially diverse teaching force can make a big difference when it comes to encouraging students of color to pursue the profession themselves. Our ISEA Student Program, which allows college students who plan to enter teaching to join the association, gives these young people access to leadership workshops that include cultural-sensitivity training and networking opportunities. If we can build the case with students of color about the benefits of entering the teaching field and leading the classroom, then we have gone a long way toward recruitment.
Public education is a great equalizer when all schools are given the same resources to help their students succeed. Our aim is to level the playing field so that all students receive the same great education to which they are entitled, regardless of their ZIP codes. I am confident the association is building toward that future.
A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2017 edition of Education Week as Confronting the Realities Of a Changing Population