CEDAR RAPIDS — Judith Maher plans to sit in the front row, or close to it, at Monday’s school board meeting.
“The board members are going to have to look me in the eye when they make their vote,” Maher said. “I want them to see me.”
The grandmother of three Polk Elementary School students won’t be the only Polk supporter in the audience. Nor is she the only one to share stories of all the good the school has done, since Superintendent Dave Benson recommended that Polk be closed at the end of the school year.
Board members will vote on his recommendations at Monday’s meeting.
“It’s been a great opportunity to be a Polk parent because I never knew a school could care so much,” Bridgett Cardenas said.
The mother of three Polk students — Herbert Daniel is in second grade, twins Tony and Dante are in kindergarten — Cardenas wasn’t sure she wanted her boys to attend Polk. She heard rumors of Polk being a “ghetto school,” but a visit with Polk staff showed the true story.
“The only reason we live here is because of the school,” her husband, Herbert Cardenas, said.
The couple was displaced in the June 2008 flood, as was Maher, Cardenas’ mother. For more than two years, the family lived in temporary housing throughout the community. The family enrolled in multiple Cedar Rapids elementary schools but didn’t find success until enrolling at Polk.
“From the minute Danny walked into Polk, they knew his situation,” Maher said. “They knew he had lived in several homes. They knew Grandma is the one at home during the day because his parents work. Polk’s principal said, ‘If you need help, we will help you.’ ”
When Cardenas broke her foot, Polk staff volunteered to walk the boys home from school. When the family was low on food, school staff delivered a food basket to help the family. More importantly, Cardenas said, Polk teachers have taught her sons to love learning.
“They give kids what they need,” she said. “They say it takes a village to raise a child. Polk has been our village.”
Comments on an online petition signed by Polk supporters echo Cardenas’ statement.
“Anyone we have talked to has been really genuinely surprised that Polk could be closed, because it is such a vital part of the neighborhood,” said Sue Nading, a mother of four. “We don’t really understand why they are taking this path with Polk.”
Nading’s youngest, Joshua, is her only child to attend the year-round school, one of two elementary schools in the district that follow the modified calendar. Nading was apprehensive about the non-traditional school calendar. Like Cardenas, a visit changed her mind.
“You know how you walk into a school classroom and the kids take that to mean they have a break?” Nading said. “That wasn’t the case at Polk. I visited what would be my son’s kindergarten classroom, and a few kids looked up, but then their eyes were back on the teacher. I’ve never seen kids so eager to learn that they ignore me.”
Nading has shared her experiences at several school board meetings. Nearly two weeks ago, Nading presented a petition with more than 1,000 signatures from residents who support Polk and wish to see the school remain open. The signatures continue to come, though, as well as words of support and encouragement.
“In all my years with the Cedar Rapids school district, as a student and a parent and a grandparent, I can name two teachers who act like the teachers at Polk,” Maher said. “Those two teachers helped me to see that I am important. Polk’s teachers let all the kids know they are important.”
The Cardenas family hasn’t discussed what they’ll do if board members vote to close Polk. Maher said the thought is overwhelming. Cardenas worries about the financial impact Polk closing will have on her and other Polk families. Some Polk supporters believe the neighborhood will suffer without the school as an anchor.
“Change of any type is a cause of apprehension,” said Timothy Gilson, a University of Northern Iowa assistant professor of educational leadership, counseling and postsecondary education. “When you talk about change that affects kids, that apprehension intensifies.”
Gilson is one of three UNI professors who conducted a study on the last eight Iowa school districts that consolidated to gauge the effects these mergers had on students. According to their results, there was no change in students’ grades. Interviews with students found positive reactions to the changes.
However, Gilson said, a district consolidation is different from a school closing.
“The reorganization of a school district typically offers more opportunities in academics and extracurriculars; that’s the selling point,” he said. “The argument that ‘You’re moving to make things better for my child’ is more difficult to sell when talking about a school that has seen success.”
A success, Nading said, that is just beginning.
“Polk is able to do miraculous things with these kids,” she said. “I think the board needs to let Polk continue to grow. The best is yet to come.”