IOWA CITY – Schools in the Iowa City school district may see significant changes in the makeup of their student bodies as the district tries to more evenly distribute low-income students.
The school board is considering a policy that would require schools to be within a certain range of each other when it comes to the percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.
That is a common measure of poverty, and the large discrepancy between schools in the district has been a priority for some school officials and community members for years. Educators say schools with high concentrations of poor students face more challenges.
But it’s also a sensitive issue because any solution inevitably requires moving students to other schools.
The policy the board will discuss at its meeting Dec. 18 is no different, although board members say they are opposed to the forced busing of students.
Under the diversity policy, as the district calls it, no elementary school could be more than 15 percentage points above the average K-6 free-reduced lunch rate. Currently, the average is 36 percent at the district’s 19 elementary schools.
The rates range from 5.88 percent to 78.57. Based on this year’s numbers, schools would have to be below 51 percent. Currently, six schools exceed that.
For the three junior high schools, no more than 15 percentage points could separate the school with the lowest rate from the school with the highest. North Central Junior High is at 20 percent, Northwest is 32 percent and South East is 44 percent.
For City High School and West High School, the low-high difference would be 10 percentage points. City is 11 points higher than West this year. Tate High, which is an alternative school, would be exempt.
The junior high schools and high schools are not working off the average because of the smaller number of buildings.
School board member Karla Cook said the policy would result in significant changes she thinks would be good for the district. As a retired City High teacher, she said she knows firsthand that students who live in poverty face bigger obstacles to learning. When large numbers of these students are in one school, there are increased challenges for all students and teachers, she said.
“I think they will be more capable of learning if they are in classes where there is not a high (free-reduced lunch) number,” she said.
Cook, however, said she was adamantly opposed to forcing students to go to new schools to meet the proposed guidelines.
She and other board members noted that the district wants to build two new elementary schools in eastern Iowa City. That would require redrawing boundary lines at several schools, and a few of those have among the highest poverty rates in the district. This would offer a chance to more evenly distribute students socioeconomically, they said.
Board member Jeff McGinness said that in addition to opening new schools, the district may have to incentivize students to voluntarily switch schools. That could be done by offering special programs at certain schools or maybe even turning some schools with high free-reduced lunch rates into year-round schools, he said.
Superintendent Stephen Murley said meeting the policy would have to involve some children going to different schools. The board on Tuesday will have the first of three readings on the policy, and Murley said he’ll see if any changes are made as it goes through debate.
But he said research shows that the better socioeconomic balance there is in a school, the more success students have.
The policy says the elementary and junior high pieces must be implemented within five years, with “demonstrable” progress of at least 20 percent annually. The high school plan must be done within two years.
Parts of the policy are taken from a diversity plan in place in the Des Moines school district. But that plan applies only to open enrollment requests. Free-reduced lunch rates at Des Moines schools range from 41 percent to 97 percent, with an average of nearly 71 percent, district spokesman Phil Roeder said.
Des Moines implemented its plan after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007 ruled that it is unconstitutional to integrate schools by using race as the sole factor in determining where to assign students. The Des Moines and Iowa City policies define “minority student” as students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch