WATERLOO — Dozens of people turned out Thursday to question Waterloo Community Schools’ administrators about topics from student achievement to teacher supports during a town hall meeting organized by a citizens group.
Talking about achievement rates, Superintendent Jane Lindaman outlined elementary reading proficiency trends, including Iowa Assessments from last spring.
Average proficiency for district third- through fifth-graders hovers near 60 percent. But it rose above 70 percent for white students and dipped just below 40 percent for black students. Proficiency for both Hispanic students and those of more than one race was between 50 and 60 percent.
“So when you look at the gap, that’s why we’re here,” said Lindaman, acknowledging that “we’re not happy about the results.”
Although there are more white students in the district than other individual racial groups, at 47 percent they don’t make up the majority anymore. Black students account for 27 percent of district students followed by Hispanics at 12 percent, students of more than two races at 9 percent, Asians at 3 percent, Pacific Islanders at 2 percent and Native Americans at 0.2 percent.
The meeting at George Washington Carver Academy was organized by the 100 Strong Coalition, which also held a similar gathering in July. The coalition describes itself as a diverse community, business and faith-based group concerned about overall academic success in district schools with a particular focus on students in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods.
Organizers invited the district to make a presentation on elementary school literacy before opening up the meeting to questions from the audience — many of whom were educators. Attendees submitted or asked more than 20 questions.
Since holding its first town hall, the coalition has identified six areas of interest for participants and is developing working groups to address those issues.
“We have actually been meeting probably about once a week,” Claudia Robinson said of the coalition’s organizers, to go over concerns that have been expressed and gather information. In addition, the interest groups have met once since then.
Lindaman and a team of administrators discussed some of the other problems that contribute to the achievement gaps and explained how the district is working to combat them.
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And they noted bright spots. Spring 2017 Iowa Assessment results showed higher proficiency rates for students in middle school and high school juniors than for elementary students. Officials pointed out that students typically make academic growth as they move through their years in school, which improves the overall rates.
They also highlighted efforts to combat summer learning loss and improve the readiness of kindergartners for first grade. Stephanie Mohorne, associate superintendent for educational services, emphasized that the district is a system where students “are still receiving the same high level of instruction with the same high expectations no matter where they’re at.”
On another standardized elementary reading test, administrators showed more growth for Waterloo Schools’ students from fall to spring last year than at the state’s seven other largest districts. “This has been three years in a row that we’ve had the highest growth,” said Lindaman.
One questioner asked if officials had considered that traditional methods or curriculum may not be working to narrow the achievement gap for black students. Mohorne replied that they are looking at adopting new literacy and math curriculum for that very reason. “The curriculum is not the problem, but it is a problem,” she said.
Numbers of elementary and middle school students who are chronically absent, or missing more than 18 days during the past year, is another problem. The missing students ranged from nearly 140 in kindergarten to just over 80 in fourth grade district-wide.
“This is tough information to see,” said Kingsley Botchway, chief officer of human resources and equity. He pointed to a breakdown of the number by grade and race. “Half of the students that are out of school 18 or more days are African-American,” he said.
Black students at the middle school level face more behavior problems, as well, with officials noting they are responsible for 70 percent of all referrals.
Some questioners voiced concern that students need teachers who are culturally sensitive, along with teachers who look like them, to succeed. Botchway noted that minority teachers make up 6-7 percent of the district’s educators. However, the district is working with the University of Northern Iowa to help increase the diversity among its staff through a special teaching degree program that started this fall.
While the district is dealing with a lot of issues, officials noted that they still have a lot of work to do. “In no way would we want you to think that we have found all the answers,” said Lindaman.