Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ensuring equity, equality

Originally printed May 24, 2011.

To provide some perspective for the Press-Citizen's four-day series on the Iowa City School District, I turned to Ross Wilburn, director of equity for the district and an member of the Iowa City Council.

The following is an edited account of our conversation.

» JCC: A few years ago, the Iowa Department of Education cited the district because it determined that Roosevelt Elementary was racially and socio-economically isolated. The board and administration responded by opening Borlaug Elementary and ensuring that such demographics are considered when drawing the new boundary lines. But the 2009 discussion about Roosevelt not only impacted the immediate Miller-Orchard neighborhood, but it also contributed directly to last year's redistricting debates. Did the state require the district to take this level of action?

RW: The state and federal governments put a number of goals out there, but they also recognize that these types of issues will continue to challenge a district. They just want to make sure that we are addressing these issues.

They want to make sure that -- whenever the district is making a decision about constructing a new building, redrawing a school boundary or making changes to the feeder system -- we consider the effects on the racial and socio-economic makeup of the schools. They want to make sure such conversations are taking place.

» JCC: How is the district dealing with the federal civil rights compliance review that found the district has a disproportionate number of black students in special education?

RW: Since 2008, after being notified by the state about the problem, the district has been working with the state to look at the data to evaluate the assessment process for all students.
We've also implemented some universal screening and early intervention programs. That's helped address some of our instructional decision-making to ensure all students are benefiting from certain early supports, education strategies and assessments.

» JCC: One of the district's goals is to ensure that every school in the district offers similar educational opportunities. Does that close the door to individualized instruction at one school and not at other schools?

RW: You have to remember that my focus is equity; it isn't education. I'm looking at statutory issues and law. And equity -- or equality -- requires different approaches to different things.
Equity can mean "equal and the same." But it also refers to efforts to address historically disadvantaged populations and to provide resources and training to help them fulfill the district's mission by becoming responsible and independent learners.

With the GAP school programs, for example, we are trying to provide certain additional supports for low income and low achieving students -- guided reading, math and science resources, etc. That means we're providing resources that aren't going to be the same at every school.

It's a tension that has to be decided at the local level -- by the school board and by the community.

» JCC: How do you think the district can best move forward after last year's redistricting debates?

RW: We need people to step forward, to get engaged in the process and to run for School Board. It will be important to have a good deal of diversity on the School Board. I'm not just talking about race. But a diversity of ideas, temperament and expertise. The board will need to be willing to approach these problems for the benefits of all students in the community.

It's also important to get people to come out and vote in this election -- whether they have children in the district or not -- and not to wait until there is a hard issue in front of them.
You see the same thing at City Council meetings. The meetings will be packed during discussions of hard issues. But budget time is also a critical time, and few people come to the budget hearings -- even though those hearings have tremendous impact on what happens in town and what projects get funded in terms of infrastructure and other issues.

It's hard to be involved and informed on every issue. But that's why you have to take advantage of staff and experts.

It's also important to not assume that X percentage of free and reduced lunch rates means a certain level of bullying/violence/trouble/low achievement are present. We have been and always will be a high achieving district, despite the FRL numbers. If we can rally around the importance of educating all our students, provide support for those with life's challenges and draw upon the strength of all that diversity can present to us, we will become an even stronger community.

» JCC: Given your position in both Iowa City government and district administration, how could relations improve between the city and school district?

RW: The Iowa City Council is another area in which some folks need to come forward.
There are challenges involving the question of where affordable housing options are constructed and made available in the community. I've long been a supporter of inclusionary zoning as a way to try and diversify all of the neighborhoods in the city, but we can't seem to get agreement about that particular issue. And that's a struggle.

The planning staff does try to keep in touch with the issues related to where the new buildings will go. And I try to keep the administrators aware of certain development projects that are in the works.

The district's boundary committee struggled with that. But they also were looking to take ownership of all the youth in our community -- which is in line with the district's mission.

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

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