CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids Community School District administrators took a shot at being students on July 31 and Aug. 1.
During those two days, Educational Leadership and Support Center administrators and staff, learning support employees, principals and assistance principals underwent Courageous Leadership training.
“This was primarily for the principals and the assistant principals, but we also wanted to invite members from the district office in leadership roles who work with the principals regularly throughout the year to make sure we’re all receiving the same training so we can have a common language and common experiences,” said Ken Morris Jr., the district’s manager of student equity.
“There’s rarely ever a space created to have those discussions. For me that was valuable. That really appealed to me about committing two days to have this work, go in depth with it and tie it back to leadership and instruction and closing the achievement gap.”
Edwin Javius — founder, president and chief executive officer of EDEquity, a San Jose, Calif.-based education consulting business — led the two-day session. The district is in the first of a three-year contract with Javius, who is consulting on issues of equity, which he defines as “giving additional or different resources to all students to ensure they exceed performance targets.”
“Unfortunately there has been this proverbial achievement gap when we look at standardized test scores,” Javius said, referring to the difference in scores of Latino and black students in comparison to their Asian and white counterparts.
“As we start to look at closing that gap, we need to accelerate the learning for the students who aren’t performing at the same rate ... . If we don’t work with our top kids over the rest of their needs they will regress to the mean, so equity doesn’t just mean working with the bottom kids. It’s really working with all kids.”
According to the school system’s Executive Manager of Student Services Paul Hayes, the agreement’s price tag is between $189,000 and $219,000.
“I think there’s many different definitions for equity, diversity, social justice and a lot of times we operate on what it means to us or what we assume it means,” Morris said. “I think sometimes people are unwilling to engage in the dialogue because they fear they’re going to get labeled.”
Across the Corridor
The Iowa City Community School District also is looking to outside partners to boost student equity. During a July 22 meeting, school board members expressed support for collaboration with the newly announced Creative Corridor Center for Equity.
The initiative is a joint project from Cedar Rapids-based Diversity Focus and the Iowa City’s West Wind Education Policy.
“They’re looking at it from a very long-term, global, sustainability model. We have a tendency with this issue to get halfway there and stop, if we even get there,” said Tuyet Dorau, a member of the Iowa City school board who has been outspoken in support of the partnership. “It’s creating this environment where, not just the Corridor, they’re going all the way up to Waterloo, to bring in more resources — whether that’s manpower, financial or creative — to sustaining this new initiative. ... It’s changing a mentality and a culture.”
That mentality and culture exist beyond school buildings, in Dorau’s view. While she acknowledged the achievement gap, she advocated for a perspective that looks at the gains students of color make as opposed to how far behind they may lag.
Dorau’s diagnosis is that the Iowa City area’s mentality and culture issues stem from the area’s own gap.
“The reality is, our community is not nearly as progressive as we like to think we are. It is not nearly as inclusive as we like to think we are,” Dorau said.
“I think it’s going to take the school district along with businesses and the community sector to change that. If we want to be as inclusive as we think we are and as accepting and progressive as we think we are, we need to take these steps in order to do that and take a real self-evaluation.”
Efforts and mindsets
Ross Wilburn, equity director for the Iowa City schools, listed a number of efforts district staff have undertaken — including home visits for kindergarten families, participation in National Night Out, and civil rights training about discrimination and sexual harassment for food service employees — under the umbrella of reaching all students.
“There are many things we need to accomplish in the area of diverse learning and in all areas of teaching and learning for all students,” Wilburn said. “Students have different needs, and in order to do that as a district we have to look at data to examine what some of those students’ learning needs are — if there’s any behavioral supports, barriers to teaching and learning, whether it’s structural or attitudinal.
“It behooves us in order to accomplish that to look at the background of students and families and our staff to make sure, as a whole, we are able to accomplish the mission of making our students responsible independent learners.”
Javius began consulting the Cedar Rapids district in January 2014, Morris said. Since then, Javius has worked with the district’s Diversity Committee — which he praised for its inclusion of community members — and conducted “equity walks” through Roosevelt and Harding middle schools in June.
“It’s a nonthreatening protocol to see what are the best practices happening in the classroom, and then we share it with the teachers,” Javius said. “We’ll be doing site work with some of the most diverse schools that have an achievement gap there.”
Javius said he plans to make between 15 and 20 visits this year to Cedar Rapids for his work.
Aside from that, Morris said the district will continue to support “cultural-specific programs” — such as the Rites of Passage leadership program for children in the Johnson and Taylor elementary school neighborhoods, the African-American Achievement Program and the Strong African American Families Project — as well as endeavoring to deepen involvement with the LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender) student population.
“I think we’re making slow but steady progress,” Morris said. “It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. That’s not a punt. It’s because the complexity — and this is systems — some of these things were in place long before many of us began our careers in the school district.
“We’re just dealing with policies and procedures, not just at the Cedar Rapids school district, but I’m speaking broadly with US history. ... It’s going to take time to undo some of those leftover practices that go back to Jim Crow and beyond.”
Javius said that closing the achievement gap is 75 percent about mind-set and 25 percent about strategy.
“Cultural competency to me is a destination. I like to call it cultural consciousness,” he said. “I want teachers to be conscious and aware of how culture interacts, so there’s no destination. ... How do I view the students is just as important as what I do with them.” Javius’s view of success includes increased staff conversation and collaboration regarding equity that sustains itself once his partnership with the Cedar Rapids schools ends.
“I think the crux of the work is we just have to improve adult performance. Kids get better when teaching gets better, teaching gets better when leadership gets better,” he said. “Our goal is not to fix kids. Our goal is to make sure adults have the tools to do what they can for all kids.”