Variations on a dream: Opinions differ on how Iowa schools should honor Dr. King

Iowa City Community School District breaks tradition, to hold classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Published: January 19 2014 | 3:30 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 2:20 am in

Administrators in the Iowa City Community School District decided to make a change.

When they determined they would hold classes on Monday, Jan. 20, the observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service federal holiday, it was a departure from the district’s history. That day traditionally had been reserved as one of no school for students and professional development — “centered around multicultural and gender content fare,” said Equity Director Ross Wilburn — for staff.

Monday, Jan. 20, will be different. Each of the district’s 25 schools and the Theodore Roosevelt Education Center will all have programming about King, who is arguably the most prominent leader of the American Civil Rights Movement. Those events range from watching movies and reading books about King to presentations and assemblies about diversity and equality as well as community service projects.

“It was an opportunity to celebrate Dr. King’s legacy by joining the national Day of Service effort and building around cultural lessons, gender lessons and to have that one day be a focused effort at that,” Wilburn said.

The decision to have students in school on the King holiday aroused controversy in the community, namely from members of the Iowa City Coalition for Racial Justice and the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa, who voiced their dissent at Iowa City school board meetings.

“We are deeply disappointed that classes will be held on the MLK Holiday this year,” reads a letter penned by members Alecia Brooks, Royceann Porter and Circe Stumbo to district families on behalf of the coalition. “Members of our community have traditionally celebrated the holiday in many different ways, which we do not believe was understood or respected by this decision.”

After initial emails between The Gazette and coalition members, they stopped responding to interview requests for this story.

The Iowa City school board has voted to recommend that future calendar committees refrain from scheduling classes on the King holiday in 2015 and beyond.

“The district supports celebrating and honoring Dr. King’s legacy,” Wilburn said. “There’s just some differences of opinion on how one would achieve that.”

A complicated question

To Steve Klein, communications director of the Atlanta, Ga.-based Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, the day is “a unique American holiday for community service,” and that is how people – including students, educators and administrators – should commemorate it.

“We support making the King holiday a first-class holiday like all the other holidays. We do urge, however, that it not just be (a day) off for everyone but a day on in the sense that we encourage everyone to get involved in community service projects,” said Klein, who defined a first-class holiday as one in which employees are given a day off with pay. “We encourage students to get involved in the school of community service …, learn by serving one day in the year, at least one day in the year.”

Wilburn, of the Iowa City school district, used almost identical language in describing the goals with this year’s treatment of the King holiday.

“The hope is to create shared positive experience around culture, around service, around Dr. King’s message, and that it’s something (students) can build on in getting to know each other a little better and getting to know their community a little better,” he said.

Local treatment

While the state of Iowa observes the King holiday, the Iowa Department of Education does not have specific guidelines related to whether or not, or how, administrators should treat the day.

“This decision is entirely up to local schools,” Communications Director Staci Hupp wrote in an email to The Gazette.

That has resulted in a variety of approaches for Iowa school districts. Calendars for the Cedar Rapids, Clear Creek Amana, College Community, Linn-Mar and Marion Independent school districts do not have classes scheduled for students on Monday, with all the districts reserving the day for professional development.

The Lisbon and Mount Vernon school districts are scheduled to have an early dismissal that day, while students will have a full day of class in the Anamosa, Central City and North Linn school districts. The day will be an inclement-weather makeup day for the Alburnett Community School District, a move the Cedar Rapids and Des Moines school districts attempted to make in 2013 before community pushback ultimately resulted in reversals from administrators.

Karl Kurt is in his first year as the superintendent of the North Linn Community School District. He was not involved with the planning of the district’s 2013-14 calendar as administrators typically finalize calendars for school board approval a year in advance.

Before his position in North Linn, Kurt was the superintendent of the Central City Community School District for four years. He recalled a full day of classes on the King holiday each year there as well.

“I don’t think we’re taking a stance against it,” Kurt said. “We probably focus a lot of our efforts around how we want to structure our professional development time and how we want to do that.”

Kurt said North Linn community members have not vocalized opposition to the district holding classes on the King holiday, and the practice likely will continue in the future. In Central City, rather than mandate a day of service or other blanket initiative in recognizing King that day, Kurt left the decision up to educators.

“You’re working obviously within your curriculum,” he said. “Obviously, when you’re talking about Civil Rights, that might not be specifically on Martin Luther King Day.

"I don’t know that talking about Dr. King needs to be relegated to his honored day. His work and his presence in the curriculum probably extends beyond that.”

King was shot and killed on April 4, 1968, while standing on a balcony at a hotel in Memphis, Tenn.

Complicated solutions

In Ashley Lee’s experience, canceled classes are not a guarantee of a meaningful observance of the King holiday. The University of Iowa sophomore and secretary of the school’s NAACP chapter grew up in Naperville, Ill., and recalled having classes off on the holiday throughout her education there.

“There may have been a thing or two said in passing about him, but there were no substantial initiatives from teachers and faculty to discuss his contributions the days leading up to the holiday,” she wrote in an email to The Gazette.

Lee, who supports the national observance of the King holiday, offered two suggestions — educators should stress King’s work in lessons leading up to a no-school day in observance of the holiday, or have it as a student-contact day with programming in his honor.

She is torn about whether or not students should be in class “because it seems as though kids look at it as a day off from school and nothing more."

“The holiday can be commemorated in a variety of creative ways,” Lee wrote. “Most importantly, there should be a moment dedicated to talking about what we can do as a country, state and school district to improve racial inequality and combat racism in the present day.”

The path to a ‘first-class holiday’

In 1983 President Ronald Reagan signed a bill to create a federal holiday on the third Monday of January in recognition of King, who was born on Jan. 15, 1929. Reagan’s action was the culmination of a 15-year fight, which began following King’s assassination in 1968, launched by King’s family, colleagues and supporters to recognize the civil rights leader’s life with a federal holiday. The first national observance took place in 1986 but it wasn’t celebrated as a paid federal holiday by all 50 states until 2000.

In 1994, the federal government established the King holiday as a service day.

“Such service opportunities shall consist of activities reflecting the life and teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr., such as cooperation and understanding among racial and ethnic groups, nonviolent conflict resolution, equal economic and educational opportunities, and social justice,” the bill reads.

A 2013 Bloomberg Bureau of National Affairs survey of 628 employers showed that 32 percent treat the day as a paid holiday for “most or all of their workers” while 11 percent “sponsor programs or events to acknowledge Dr. King’s life and achievements, regardless of whether they will give the day off.”


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