WATERLOO — A group of black residents and former administrators raised concerns this week with the Board of Education about a range of issues from student achievement to staffing in the Waterloo Community Schools.
Eight people, including a student, spoke during the public comment period and spurred a lengthy discussion among board members. One speaker called on the district to hold a town hall meeting to address the issues.
“The reason why we’re here is because a number of concerned parents and even staff contacted members of the community and they felt that the administration is not hearing them,” said LaTanya Graves, president of the Black Hawk County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. After discussions with district administrators, several community meetings were held to gather more input.
“For the last weeks, I’ve spoken to several parents and staff of the Waterloo school system,” said Claudia Robinson. “All of the conversations have ended with feelings of urgency and concerns with our students and teachers in Waterloo.”
The worries they told her are wide-ranging.
“Parents have shared feelings of their children not being treated fairly or equally. Staff have voiced concerns with lack of support with student behavior and disruption in the classroom. Many have stated a fear of speaking openly to their administrators for fear of losing employment, retribution on their jobs or — plain and simple — nothing being done.
“I have heard many concerns about the curriculum that it doesn’t allow for students that have difficulty learning or for allowing those behind to ever catch up,” said Robinson. “Business cannot be as usual. If test scores and retention rates are not improving, we must do something different.”
She urged the board to look into what is being taught, how struggling students are assisted and if improvement plans are helping low-achieving schools to boost test scores.
Debra Carr has examined the district’s test scores and graduation rates.
“Honestly, my heart is really broken when I look at the outcomes and what’s happening from early childhood throughout high school,” she said. Carr wondered what other resources can be “put in place so that we can assure the best interests of kids and families in our communities.”
“I’m willing to assist whoever I need to assist so that we can improve this racial gap and also the student achievement gap,” said Graves, referencing the “in need of improvement” status of many Waterloo schools under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
“What are we going to do to turn that around? Is that strategic plan working? Because this has been going on for a number of years,” she added.
No Child Left Behind has been replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act, but the state of Iowa has yet to release any achievement data under the new law. Graves said the district doesn’t have time to wait, though.
“Something needs to change and it needs to change now, because our children are our future,” she said. “And if our children are being failed by the school system, what’s going to happen?”
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Officials don’t typically address concerns during the public comment period, but they did respond afterward during the meeting.
Superintendent Jane Lindaman noted there is a “significantly reduced gap” in graduation rates between black students and students as a whole. For the class of 2017, the latest data available, the graduation rate of 81.82 percent for black students is just behind the overall district rate of 84.15 percent.
Stephanie Mohorne, the district’s incoming associate superintendent for educational services, said the district is addressing the problem of students failing core courses throughout middle school. Eighth-graders in that situation were warned during the year they would need to pass the courses during summer school before moving on to high school. Summer school classes for those students are now underway and continue until June 28.
A number of the speakers asked about staffing and procedures for hiring teachers and administrators.
Tatum Wortham said, based on what she has seen recently, “it’s not what you know but who you know” when it comes to being hired by the district. She alleged “you have people in the community with degrees ... but you have somebody walk in with no degree and can be an assistant principal” or an administrative assistant.
Retired principals Robert Tyson and Robert Wright talked about the need to recruit and retain more black male teachers and administrators.
“We have a shortage of African-American male teachers and administrators in Waterloo,” said Tyson. “Research has shown that African-American students are less likely to be suspended, expelled and more likely to graduate if they have African-American educators who identify and understand their learning needs.”
He added, “One of our community concerns is the school-to-prison pipeline for young black males. African-American males in Waterloo are arrested 25 times the normal population. This includes a disproportionate number of our kids who are under 18 in a juvenile system.”
Wright cited a Boston study on recruiting and retaining black males in the education field, including promotions into administrative positions.
“They felt inferior, they felt of no use and a lot of them gave up,” he said of men who were part of the study. “I’m wondering if that happens in our own district, that sometimes some of them are just giving up because they don’t see any promotion going on.”
Officials took issue with Wortham’s comments about hiring in the district, explaining licensing requirements and the process applicants go through.
“We don’t just hire people off the street,” said board member Sue Flynn. “There are parameters.”
But board member Lyle Schmitt suggested the district needs to examine concerns about black male educators.
“I think we need to take a hard look at the data we have and see what differences we could make through hiring practices,” he said.