Editor’s note: IowaWatch in a year-long investigation found that although each state is required to identify the bottom-scoring 5 percent of Title I schools every three years, it doesn’t mean these schools are “failing,” as some Iowa policymakers label them. Iowa’s 34 schools are on a “comprehensive” list. IowaWatch is featuring some of them.

Great curriculum materials, teaching and support aren’t enough if they aren’t a child’s consistent experience throughout the day.

“It’s like a diet, and if you’re only feeding the child a snack twice a day, they’re always going to be hungry,” said Mekisha Barnes, former principal at King Elementary School in Des Moines. “It has to be a full, comprehensive diet and system of support.”

King Elementary, which serves kindergarten through grade five, is listed as comprehensive. The school’s overall score is 42.33; the state average is 54.94.

Iowa’s 34 comprehensive schools are the Title I schools that score in the bottom 5 percent in the state based on students’ performance on the Iowa Statewide Assessment of Student Progress test, and/or for high schools, have a graduation rate below 67.1 percent.

Overall in Iowa, 42.4 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, compared to 97.3 percent at King. The school also has a higher percentage of English-language learners, 36.9 percent, compared with a statewide average of 6.5 percent; and a minority population of 93.9 percent, compared with 25.7 percent statewide.

Correlations between parents’ educational backgrounds and their children’s academic performance at school have nothing to do with potential or intellect, and everything to do with access, educators say.

“Blaming families or socioeconomic status is a scapegoat. We know – research has shown over and over and over again – when states and schools invest in early childhood education, early intervention, provide the supports from 7:45 to 2:30, and they do that systematically with quality instruction, conditions, and provide that educational experience, with, again, the conditions, students achieve,” said Barnes, now principal at Weeks Middle School in Des Moines. “It’s not a parent involvement problem. It’s not a poverty problem. It is not a kid problem, and it is not an adult/mothers/literacy level problem.”

When King was identified as comprehensive, educators at the school knew what to do.

“If schools are actually reflective and have a healthy data process, they know exactly what it is that they need to do,” Barnes said.

Students at King needed a consistent experience, no matter which teacher or adult they were dealing with inside the school, no matter the class, and no matter which grade level. A program called No Nonsense Nurturer by CT3 was launched in every classroom.

“What does it mean to be a classroom community, and as a teacher, what is it, and how do you interact with students? Because that’s the other part that is important to talk about, is that the people serving children are not of the same cultural background. Our teacher prep programs do a terrible job of preparing teachers for the real world outside of middle-class white America. So if your school district doesn’t serve middle-class white America, you are grossly ill prepared, because generally speaking, that’s where you come from, too,” Barnes said.

Most teachers are white women who aren’t from cities, and so even if they come from a lower socio-economic status bracket, they have not lived life in brown skin, and therefore their perceptions of the world and their framework of understanding is very different than that of students of color. Social-emotional learning is largely ineffective when it doesn’t address the conditions and the community in which those lessons are happening, she said.

The No Nonsense Nurturer was very difficult for adults to implement, but students love it, she said.

That’s because by giving every child clear and concise expectations and directions, and focusing on what students are doing correctly, and saying those things aloud, helps motivate students while also making the classroom a more positive place to be. When every student is recognized and consequenced the same, as well as being positively narrated and understood, it creates a safe, predictable, positive environment. It also helps students to focus on learning and not be distracted or waste time arguing, Barnes explained.

“That has been the single most important thing that we have done. And it’s hard,” she said. “But so many teachers are seeing a change, an improvement when they use it consistently.”

In 2019, Gov. Kim Reynolds visited King Elementary.

“She sat in my school library … and came and spoke and wanted to come take pictures. And she did, for publicity reasons,” she said.

Reynolds did not respond to multiple requests from IowaWatch to comment.

This year, Reynolds advocated for school choice to help “students trapped in a failing school.” Although Senate File 159, which would have created education savings accounts, did not pass in last year’s legislative session, it is back for consideration at the Statehouse. And charter school legislation did pass last year.

The purpose of school choice bills in Iowa and nationwide is to divide the haves from the have nots, Barnes said.

“We need to reckon with the fact that we have racist, systematic racist practice. And that’s intentional. People recognize that. They’re not going to call it that. Very few people are willing to look in the mirror and say, ‘What am I, by making this decision, who benefits and who does not?’ And if they actually did, which they do, it is about constituency, and it’s about making certain people happy. It’s political. You can’t reason that rationally, socially. That argument doesn’t work. It does not make any sense,” she said.

Looping “failing school” rhetoric into the rationale for needing school choice legislation is the same old narrative, Barnes said. To say that schools are failing is for state lawmakers, who have the power to equitably fund schools and provide them with support, to admit they are failing.

“There’s a cause and effect in this relationship, and schools are not in the position that they’re at by themselves,” Barnes said. “We can’t do things without resources and without permission and direction.”

Funding for comprehensive schools after they receive comprehensive status, and not trying to address their needs in the first place, is using an intervention instead of addressing the root cause.

“Ultimately that’s a scarcity mentality, so you’re always going to fail with that,” Barnes said. “The root cause is you were underfunded, and there isn’t a strategic plan to help support the fact that there isn’t early education, there isn’t early intervention, you’re not requiring intervention systems, so you continue to pass students along from kindergarten, first, second grade, and you’re not investing in their ability to identify letters, letter sounds and blend, and do all the important skills. Well, don’t get upset about third-grade scores. … I wish people understood how structural and how intentional and how this is part of the system, and until we change the system, we will continue to get the same outcome.”

Leah McBride Mensching is a freelance reporter for IowaWatch. She has worked as a reporter, editor, photographer and media researcher over the past 15 years, both as an independent journalist and as an editorial manager for WAN-IFRA, the global organization of the world’s press. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Iowa State University and a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.

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