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.

Before tackling academics, staff at Fred Becker Elementary School in Waterloo had to zero in on what was standing between their students and learning.

“A lot of elementary kiddos, they don’t know how to use their voice, so a lot of times it comes out as escape, or sometimes an aggressive act,” said Alex Hansen, principal at Fred Becker Elementary school.

Hanson took over as principal after the Waterloo school was listed as comprehensive, and it was clear that behavior was getting in the way of academic growth.

“We had close to 4,000 major behavioral incidents as a building in the ’18-’19 school year,” Hansen said. “Even though we get measured on academics, that many behavioral concerns has a detrimental impact on the learning environment.”

Becker Elementary, serving kindergarten through fifth grade, was listed as comprehensive, but has met its comprehensive status within two years.

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.

Based on scoring outlined by the Every Student Succeeds Act, the average score for schools in Iowa is 54.94. Becker Elementary has an overall score of 53.21.

Before teachers and staff could help children struggling to express their emotions, the adults had to completely change their mindsets in how to handle flareups.

“When anything uncomfortable would happen in the classroom, the gut reaction is to remove that situation from the classroom so you can keep teaching. … By removing [the child]… you’ve taught them when you’re stressed, you can run from a problem,” he said. “And, you’re training your staff to not take social-emotional learning seriously or to make it a priority.”

The school implemented a strategy that anytime a non-aggressive situation pops up in class, the teacher stops teaching and the class has a five-minute meeting.

“Not only will that student learn healthy ways to process through their emotions, but the rest of the students, if you have a collaborative meeting, will learn indirectly from that situation, too,” Hansen explained. “The positive consequences for sharing your feelings [are], you’re able to develop solutions, you’re able to develop new skills.”

Just a year later, the school had 300 major incidents in the ’19-’20 school year before the COVID-19 shutdown in March 2020.

At first, staff was worried about losing five or 10 minutes of instruction time.

“No, five or 10 minutes of investment now will gain you so much in the long run. So our whole first year was a mindset shift. Once we got that, now we have a continuum,” Hansen said.

If children do need to leave the classroom, the school has added a social-emotional room where trained staff talk to them about what is upsetting them or causing frustration. A sensory hallway has also been added where kids can take a moment to do things like stretches or pushups.

Another structural change is how major transitions during the day are handled. Instead of coming back from lunch or recess and jumping into the next thing, or switching from one subject right into the next, teachers take mindful moments with the kids.

“What that looks like in each class is different, because each teacher has to do what they’re comfortable with. So for some that can be breathing exercises, for others it might be a video they can engage with, a movement activity that just basically helps them disconnect from any stressors. It’s fun, it’s resetting,” he said.

The school has a higher percentage of students on free and reduced-price lunches than the statewide average, at 71.1 percent, higher than average percentage of English-language learners (9.2 percent) and students on individual education programs (16.2 percent), and a higher percentage of minority students, at 55.5 percent.

Figuring out the underlying causes of academic struggles wasn’t a great mystery for Hansen, who grew up in poverty in Waterloo.

“I had very involved parents, but when I went to school every day, there were things on my mind that non-poverty households didn’t have to worry about. I didn’t know if I was going home to a meal. …I was already emotionally wound up before I walked through the door,” he said. “I’m just using me as an example, but that’s a reflection of Becker and Waterloo, a big chunk of our dynamic.

“Kids in poverty can still function at a high level. If you’re not in tune with [poverty] it can be a barrier. If you are in tune with it, you can remove those barriers.”

Not being in tune with poverty also creates its own barriers for those financially more well off who may see it only as something to run from.

“They’ll take that opportunity to run and not realize how those very things that they’re running from can also be the things that their child can grow the most from. If you think about the workplace, in any workplace I go to nowadays, if you don’t know how to function in a level of diversity, you’re not going to be as successful as you potentially could be. But if you learn how to function in that diversity that you see within the public education world, man, that’s a golden opportunity. I would hate to see parents who see those as negative stereotypes leave that and deprive their children of life learning opportunities.”

It’s difficult to hear the word “failing” used by lawmakers to refer to comprehensive schools.

“It is a true lack of understanding,” Hansen said. “I know our governor is probably very busy and can’t get into all the schools to see, but even within Waterloo, I think we’re a perfect reflection of the state of Iowa, because you have high economic areas, just within the 11 Waterloo elementaries that are clicking on all cylinders and knocking academics out of the park, and you have other areas that are in high poverty and, while academics is our priority, we’re also working on so many other foundational things and making a ton of growth in those areas, but that doesn’t reflect on school report cards, which is sad.

“If [you] could walk through those schools and see the insanely amazing things they’re doing for the citizens of the world, you’d be so excited.”

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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