(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," June 8, 2009)
Saturday's Press-Citizen reported that the number of students living in poverty in the Iowa City School District has increased more than 20 percent in just the past two years. Districtwide, 29.3 percent of all students qualify for free and reduced lunch, according to the Iowa Department of Education. That number is up 41 percent from five years ago, but it remains below the state average of 34.1 percent for the 2008-09 school year.
There are a number of possible reasons for why the numbers are increasing:
• The slumping economy.
• A low unemployment rate that attracts unemployed and underemployed families to the district.
• The eligibility requirements are flawed at either the local or federal level.
But we're most concerned in how these poverty statistics consistently cluster around certain schools. During the 2008-09 school year, five elementaries had more than half of their students coming from families who qualify for free and reduced lunch:
• Hills, 58.2 percent
• Kirkwood, 56.3 percent
• Roosevelt, 57.3 percent
• Twain, 66.9 percent
• Wood, 62 percent
Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, Lincoln and Wickham elementary had just 2.8 percent and 3.9 percent of their students, respectively, qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
The statistics demonstrate why the Iowa Department of Education earlier this year determined that Roosevelt, Twain and Wood were socio-economically isolated. And with the Iowa City School Board voting Tuesday whether to move forward with a proposal to close Roosevelt and to build a new school on the western edge of Iowa City, the debate over equity between the schools has reached a fevered pitch.
The district has been working for years to address the challenges faced in its higher poverty schools through programs like family resource centers and family literacy nights. And Peter Hlebowitsh, an assistant education professor at the University of Iowa, said the best way to make schools equitable is to allow students to transfer or open enroll at other schools in the district.
Unfortunately, while the Iowa City School District has such an open enrollment policy, schools become closed to transfers when there is no space available. Plus the transfer numbers show that far more students are transferring out of than into the poverty-clustered schools.
"If that starts to happen pervasively ... the school district would be wise to gerrymander some of the boundaries," Hlebowitsh said. "You could fool with the lines and still have schools that are quite convenient."
Superintendent Lane Plugge said there has been no serious talk on making any districtwide boundary changes. But we think it is well past time to begin serious discussions of redrawing boundaries between elementaries throughout the district -- especially given that the administration's proposal for closing Roosevelt would have the new elementary school start out with a well above average percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch.