Des Moines

Why Des Moines Can Be a Model for Urban Schools

A majority of students are minorities. Poverty rates are going up. Refugees speak 100 different languages and dialects. And despite all this, the school district is seeing gains.

Mauro Whiteman and Matt Vasilogambros
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Mauro Whiteman and Matt Vasilogambros
Oct. 8, 2014, 10:34 a.m.

DES MOINES, Iowa—Par­ju Rai fin­ishes her quiz on in­tegers with ease, put­ting her pen­cil down as Amelia Mieth, an eighth-grade teach­er, calls time. Rai and her fam­ily ar­rived in the United States just two months ago from a refugee camp in east­ern Nepal. But you wouldn’t know it from her com­fort level in the class. She doesn’t speak much Eng­lish, but she un­der­stands the uni­ver­sal lan­guage of math. “She knows ex­actly what she’s do­ing,” Mieth says in her Amos Hi­att Middle School classroom on the east side of town.

But Rai doesn’t stand out among her peers. Of the 28 stu­dents in her math class, only four are white. The oth­ers are a mix of Asi­an refugees, Latino im­mig­rants, and Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans. It’s a rep­res­ent­at­ive sample of a classroom in Iowa’s cap­it­al city.

The ma­jor­ity of the 33,000 stu­dents in the Des Moines pub­lic schools are minor­it­ies, and they have been for the last sev­er­al years. Whites make up only 45 per­cent of classrooms here, and the rest in­cludes a grow­ing num­ber of Lati­nos (24 per­cent) and Asi­ans (7 per­cent), and a steady num­ber of Afric­an Amer­ic­ans (18 per­cent). The stu­dent pop­u­la­tion is the res­ult of demo­graph­ic trends that have re­shaped Des Moines over the past couple of dec­ades—as white fam­il­ies moved to the sub­urbs, Iowa’s open-door refugee policy and plen­ti­ful un­skilled labor jobs made way for more eth­nic new­comers. 

It’s clearly a di­verse stu­dent body, but it’s also a dis­ad­vant­aged one. Two con­stant chal­lenges fa­cing the school dis­trict are poverty and Eng­lish lan­guage skills. Even so, the dis­trict is ex­per­i­en­cing some sur­pris­ing aca­dem­ic suc­cesses that could make it a na­tion­al mod­el for oth­er urb­an dis­tricts.

Su­per­in­tend­ent Tom Ahart doesn’t sug­ar­coat the obstacles: “We really have an up­hill battle.” While just 33 per­cent of stu­dents qual­i­fied for free or re­duced meals in 1993, that num­ber is up to 73 per­cent today. A ma­jor­ity of schools, in fact, give all stu­dents free break­fast and lunch. And poverty is not a prob­lem that’s go­ing away—the rate is even high­er for the kinder­garten co­hort, and en­roll­ment con­tin­ues to rise. Urb­an-core poverty in Des Moines is com­par­able to De­troit or Phil­adelphia, Ahart con­tends.

Mean­while, refugees from all over the world con­tin­ue to ar­rive in the pub­lic-school sys­tem here, bring­ing with them more than 100 dif­fer­ent lan­guages and dia­lects. The lan­guage bar­ri­er at home can be quite acute. Ac­cord­ing to Urb­an In­sti­tute data from 2011, Iowa ranks fifth for the share of chil­dren of im­mig­rants who live in homes that are “lin­guist­ic­ally isol­ated,” mean­ing that there is vir­tu­ally no one older than 14 in the house­hold who speaks Eng­lish well. This makes it dif­fi­cult for par­ents to com­mu­nic­ate with school of­fi­cials and also lim­its their abil­ity to help with their child’s class­work.

But des­pite these chal­lenges, Des Moines pub­lic schools seem to be clos­ing the achieve­ment gap across most levels. Test scores and gradu­ation rates are im­prov­ing. Since 2009, the four-year gradu­ation rate has ris­en nearly 7 per­cent­age points to just over 79 per­cent. The gradu­ation rate for black stu­dents at the com­pre­hens­ive high schools (not in­clud­ing the spe­cial-edu­ca­tion and al­tern­at­ive schools) is just 5 per­cent­age points lower than that for white stu­dents, at 81 per­cent. The dro­pout rate for Des Moines high school stu­dents has also de­clined since 2009. The dis­trict saw gains in statewide pro­fi­ciency test scores at every grade level in math and read­ing ex­cept in 11th grade read­ing. And Afric­an-Amer­ic­an stu­dents saw the largest in­crease in read­ing and math scores for grades three through five.

How does this demo­graph­ic­ally dis­ad­vant­aged school dis­trict con­tin­ue to im­prove?

Part of it has to do with the cul­ture. Take North High School, which was at the bot­tom for Iowa in all test scores five years ago, hov­er­ing around 40 per­cent across all levels. It sits in one of the poorest neigh­bor­hoods in Des Moines, where many stu­dents spend nights work­ing late or es­sen­tially par­ent­ing their young­er sib­lings. Teach­ers, know­ing this, ex­cused stu­dents from aca­dem­ic ob­lig­a­tions. North was an af­ter­thought, and the school looked like it, too, with no air-con­di­tion­ing and run­down classrooms.

Then the school got a new ad­min­is­tra­tion, new ex­pect­a­tions, and new digs. The dis­trict cleaned house and in­stalled dif­fer­ent ad­min­is­trat­ors, who im­me­di­ately ad­dressed what they saw as a sys­tem­at­ic fail­ure in the re­la­tion­ship between stu­dents and teach­ers. “We un­der­stand these hard­ships,” ex­plains Mi­chael Vukovich, the cur­rent prin­cip­al, “but in or­der to break these cycles of poverty in our com­munity, we have to edu­cate our kids and get them to col­lege and get them de­grees.”

“You can’t do that by let­ting them sleep in class,” says Vukovich. “You can’t do that by giv­ing them pack­ets of work in­stead of teach­ing ma­ter­i­al. We can’t con­trol some of the things that these kids en­dure when they leave our build­ing. But when they’re in, we can hold them to these ex­pect­a­tions.”

For teach­ers, it meant coach­ing so they could im­prove. For the build­ing, it meant $14 mil­lion in renov­a­tions, in­stalling air-con­di­tion­ing and mod­ern­iz­ing. They also used new grants to provide all stu­dents with their own laptop—today, stu­dents are as­signed in­di­vidu­al iPads. Add to that a new dress code for stu­dents and teach­ers, the elim­in­a­tion of in-school sus­pen­sions and de­ten­tions, and a strengthened ef­fort to quickly clear the hall­ways between classes, and the school’s trans­form­a­tion was un­der­way.

Last year, the school hit 58.3 per­cent pro­fi­ciency in read­ing—al­most a 20-point in­crease. Five years ago, there was one Ad­vanced Place­ment class with 11 stu­dents. Now, there are 12 with 600 total en­roll­ments. North High School star­ted of­fer­ing AP Span­ish to stu­dents for the first time last year. Eight stu­dents chose to the take the test, and all eight passed and earned col­lege cred­it.

But Des Moines can’t ad­dress all of its chal­lenges without put­ting heavy re­sources in­to its grow­ing Eng­lish Lan­guage Lean­ers pro­gram. Since the fall of Sai­gon in 1975, refugees have flocked to Iowa. But the situ­ation is dif­fer­ent now then it was 40 years ago, says Vinh Nguy­en, one of those refugees from Vi­et­nam, and the cur­rent ELL pro­gram co­ordin­at­or for the dis­trict.

In the mid-1970s, there were just 300 stu­dents in the ELL pro­gram, speak­ing Vi­et­namese, Cam­bod­i­an, Lao­tian, Hmong, and Tai Dam. Today, the pro­gram serves 6,100 stu­dents (20 per­cent of all Des Moines pub­lic-school stu­dents), who speak more than 100 lan­guages and dia­lects. That num­ber grew rap­idly just in the past dec­ade, as there were just 26 lan­guages in 2001. Back in the 1970s, the fed­er­al and state gov­ern­ments provided ample re­sources for refugees. That as­sist­ance is scant today. Back then, stu­dents came to the U.S. know­ing how to read and write in their nat­ive lan­guage. Many stu­dents today come il­lit­er­ate in their nat­ive lan­guage.

“Every time we have a new pop­u­la­tion, I sit back and learn about that pop­u­la­tion and fig­ure out ways to work with them and learn about their com­munity,” says Nguy­en, who came to the U.S. in 1983. “As soon as I get a good hold of it, a new pop­u­la­tion comes in. My job is nev­er done.”

At its most ba­sic level, en­sur­ing that these stu­dents un­der­stand Eng­lish starts with ELL teach­ers like Mar­garet Peterson, who works at Green­wood Ele­ment­ary School. Some of her stu­dents have a good found­a­tion of lit­er­acy. Some do not. Some quickly learn to speak a new lan­guage. Oth­ers need more time. But she has to teach all of them to­geth­er, des­pite their back­grounds.

“Every­one al­ways asks, ‘Do you speak all of those lan­guages?’ And my an­swer is al­ways, ‘How did you teach your own chil­dren when they star­ted?’ ” she says. “For a teach­er to sit and talk about vow­el sounds to someone from Somalia makes ab­so­lutely no sense to them. You have to sim­pli­fy everything.”

The num­ber of ELL stu­dents will con­tin­ue to rise; 26 per­cent of kinder­gartens are in the pro­gram. And these stu­dents, too, have to take the statewide stand­ard­ized tests like every­one else, even though the stu­dents are not yet fully pro­fi­cient when they exit the pro­gram. Des­pite this, 37 per­cent of ELL stu­dents were pro­fi­cient in read­ing in last year’s statewide ex­ams, a jump of 19 per­cent­age points from the year be­fore. And it takes an ef­fort from teach­ers out­side of the ELL pro­gram (Mieth, a math teach­er, dec­or­ates her classrooms with vocab­u­lary words and re­quires writ­ten-out an­swers on home­work.)

School of­fi­cials ar­gue that le­gis­la­tion stands in their way of mak­ing truly sub­stan­tial pro­gress. Last year, 40 Des Moines schools were deemed “in need of as­sist­ance” by fed­er­al gov­ern­ment stand­ards. At the state level, they’re ad­voc­at­ing for a change in the way re­sources are al­loc­ated to school dis­tricts. At the fed­er­al level, they see No Child Left Be­hind and sub­sequent tests as ar­cha­ic and un­able to meas­ure pro­gress. But that doesn’t mean Ahart is not pleased with his dis­trict’s pro­gress.

“Des­pite some real state policy is­sues that get in the way of us do­ing the best job that we could, you can get the job done if you really be­lieve the kids are cap­able,” Ahart says. “As simple and Pol­ly­anna-ish as that sounds, it’s really the fun­da­ment­al thing we need to re­mem­ber. Kids are cap­able. We need to hold the bar high, and not sell any of the pop­u­la­tion short.”

Urb­an schools across the coun­try struggle with ad­versit­ies such as poverty and ba­sic lan­guage skills, but this school dis­trict in Cent­ral Iowa seems to be on the right path, des­pite grow­ing di­versity.

Stephanie Stamm contributed to this article.
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