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.

Twenty different languages are spoken by Warren G. Harding Middle School students and their families. Connecting them with information takes the work of a team of bilingual family liaisons, success workers and other staff.

“We think about how do we help our students with food, with clothing, with transportation. We have staff that are dedicated to those roles,” said Christopher Schmit, principal of Harding Middle School. “We have a lot of businesses and a lot of different people that will help provide some of those regular school materials that generally other districts would have all parents provide.”

Teachers also step in and help kids out when they can.

“This is part of that heart that they have and their love for working with kids, but they’ll take money out of their own pockets to help kids, whether that’s buying them shoes, or buying them clothes, or donating clothes that their kids have grown out of,” he said.

The middle school, which serves grades six through eight, was listed as comprehensive, but has met its comprehensive status within two years. The school’s overall score is 46.71; 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. At Harding, that number is 91.7 percent. The school also has a higher percentage of English-language learners, 34.2 percent, compared with a statewide average of 6.5 percent; students with disabilities, 21.3 percent, compared with 12.9 percent overall for Iowa, and a minority population of 82.7 percent, compared with 25.7 percent statewide.

Languages spoken by Harding Middle School students and their families are: English, Spanish, five Karen languages, Swahili, Kunama, Vietnamese, Burmese, Somali, Arabic, Dinka, Karenni, Kinyarwanda, Lao, Nepali, Nuer and Rundi.

Bilingual family liaisons help the school communicate with families in their languages, both written and verbal. One tool for communicating is called CNXT, which is almost like social media but for school. Families can select their language choices to read information and message back and forth with the school.

The school has also put a lot of time into social-emotional learning and infusing it into school throughout the day. Since receiving comprehensive status, there has been extra focus on social-emotional learning for staff.

“We know that in order to be the best teacher, the best administrator, the best associate, we have to be able to reach our students, and we can’t do that if we’re not regulating ourselves and we’re not in a good spot,” Schmit said.

Giving staff supports also translates to retaining those staff members, and keeping staff helps increase student achievement, he said.

Hearing the term “failing schools” coming from the State Capitol just a few miles away is one of the areas where social-emotional support for staff comes in handy. Conversations about it tend to bubble up now and then, and having support system helps.

“One of the things that has been most taxing on staff is not necessarily the stuff happening at school,” Schmit said. “Basically we’re being told we’re not good enough, and that’s a narrative that we’re trying to work very much against. … We say it often here at Harding, there’s not been really anybody that’s come to walk through our buildings. Not this year or previous years, and so if you’re going to tell us we’re not doing things right, then come and check it out with us.”

Pointing to so-called “failing schools” as justifications for school choice legislation, like the heavily debated Senate File 159, which did not pass but has been pursued again at the Statehouse, is concerning. From an educator’s perspective, school choice legislation does the opposite of leveling the playing field, he said.

“My concern with the bill is that it really just separates those with money from those without, or those with privilege from those without privilege. It’s disheartening,” Schmit said.

For kids at the middle school level, school choice legislation may not be on their radar as much  as things like anti-transgender bills, a record number of which were introduced last year in Iowa. None of the bills made it through funnel week, but they could be added to other bills or passed this session. Conversations that bubble up around those current events also lean heavily on social-emotional learning, as kids learn how to discuss their feelings and thoughts.

“We work really hard to make this a safe, welcoming environment for all of our students, because if they’re not feeling safe here then it’s going to make it really difficult to learn,” he said.

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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