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.

Less than a year into comprehensive designations, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools across the country in March 2020.

This effectively pressed pause and added a fourth year to schools on comprehensive lists.

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.

But as difficult as the pandemic has been, for Ruthven-Ayrshire Elementary School in northwest Iowa, there has also been a silver lining.

“With the awareness of the stress that [COVID-19] does cause students and families, our social-emotional learning has really taken a forefront, and we’ve been able to bring outside counseling into the facility,” said Marshall Lewis, superintendent of the Ruthven Ayrshire Community School District and principal of Ruthven-Ayrshire Elementary.

A counselor from Plains Area Mental Health began visiting once a week for appointments with Ruthven-Ayrshire and Graettinger-Terril students in March 2021.

It’s something Curriculum Director Chris Myers had been trying to set up for four years.

“To have that in the building has already been seen as a huge plus,” said Myers, curriculum director for both the Ruthven-Ayrshire and Graettinger-Terril school districts.

In the original plan created following the school’s comprehensive designation, “social emotional was one of the items chosen to improve anyway,” Myers said. “The pandemic just causes us to talk about it more. So we actually have spent more time on that than I would have initially envisioned.”

The school was listed as comprehensive and has an overall score of 43.12. The state average is 54.94.

In Iowa, 42.4 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. At Ruthven-Ayrshire Elementary, that number is 70.3 percent.

“It’s sort of frustrating because [in the 2019-2020 school year] everything we did between August and the middle of March was basically thrown out the door,” Myers said. “Nobody wants to be on somebody’s hit parade, the state’s hit parade, for three years to begin with, and essentially be on there for four at least.”

But after students in the district were able to come back in person in the 2020-2021 school year, academics and professional development for teachers are back on track, and social-emotional learning has grown more than anyone could’ve imagined back in 2019.

Every Wednesday, students have an early out, giving staff an hour and a half to work on professional development and examine academic learning and growth. Staff also gets roughly one professional development day a month.

Since the pandemic started, people “understand more about the social-emotional needs of what we deal with in school,” Myers said.

But even as the pandemic brought to light all the ways in which schools are intertwined with the health of children, families and communities, they have also been targeted for blame by some lawmakers, especially those schools listed as comprehensive.

Charter school legislation was passed , and other school choice legislation has been also been considered, such as that of voucher programs. The threat of “failing schools,” was one of the justifications for school choice legislation, which has returned to debate at the Statehouse.

Especially for rural schools, school choice discussions by lawmakers is a concern, Lewis and Myers said.

“It’s not that I don’t want [private schools] to exist, because I do believe they fill a great need; on the other hand, I don’t believe that our public, that is being taxed for education of all, should be required to foot the bill for a specific school choice either,” Lewis said. Public schools “have great inclusion that you just don’t get other places, although those other places are right for some people. It’s just not right to fund those with tax dollars, and not have the same stipulations that public schools have as well, to get all of the benefits and none of the requirements.”

If tax dollars are increasingly funneled to private schools, the divide between wealthier communities and poorer communities will only widen, as will the gap between children with disabilities and those without.

Meanwhile, kids in rural districts could be left in education deserts. Any way they look at it, the claim politicians make that school choice will level the playing field doesn’t make sense, Lewis and Myers agreed.

“The argument that the intent there is to serve all kids and provide them equal access to education is totally counter-intuitive … because you’re basically taking your poorest, least accessible kids and you’re leaving them in a public school while you drain all of the financial support that student should be receiving, and you’re draining, in theory, the top academic, high achievers so that when we use the phrase that Governor Reynolds used recently and frequently, that our schools are failing, that our public schools are failing, this particular situation continues to exacerbate that whole concept,” Lewis said.

If  “we start moving in that direction, public schools will look like they’re failing more because we’ll have less funds coming in, we’ll have the lower-ability students stay where they’re at, because they won’t be allowed to go to the private schools, and so you will see that disparity grow. And it will be an easy target for public schools that are doing the best job, I believe, to meet the needs of all kids, and then be termed ‘failing schools,’” Lewis continued.

Private schools can choose their students, whereas the role of public school is to take every child, no matter what, Myers said.

Excluding anyone “is absolutely not the best for kids, it is not the best for all students. As a matter of fact, in my elementary building we’re having an inclusion day,” Lewis said. “The whole idea is accepting people for who they are, recognizing their talents, recognizing what they contribute to the group, and everybody being a little different is awesome.”

Anything that drains public schools of funds is going to hurt everyone in the long run, Lewis said.

“If we continue to pull money out of public schools who are serving everyone, we are going to see an increase in unemployment, we’re going to see an increase of dependency on the state, we’re going to see a lot more services needed for people,” he said. “We’re starting on the path to becoming an elitist society where only the elite will be able to get the proper education because we just won’t be able to afford to if all our money is funneled somewhere else.”

How can Iowa avoid this fate? Education, they said.

“Teachers already know. People that work in the building already know,” Myers said. From there, school boards need to understand, and school boards can help educate lawmakers.

“Unfortunately, legislators are very narrowly focused,” he said. “They want to go to one piece of data. So in the state of Iowa, it’s the [Iowa Statewide Assessment for Student Progress]…legislators use one form of data, the response on a test, so that’s how some kids did on one day of their lives.”

Understanding that 50 percent of what schools do are academics, and the other half is social-emotional learning and executive functioning skills, is a good place to start.

Although ensuring students are growing academically is important, focusing only on the academic half ignores thousands of hyper-complex points of information that can’t be reduced to a simple score, educators said. And the academic side of things isn’t nearly as successful if the social-emotional side isn’t working.

“We don’t talk enough about love. And I honestly believe that is what drives a lot of the passion of our teachers. They literally love their kids,” Lewis said. “Truly loving your students and caring for them to that level, I really believe sets apart a school like GT and RA.”

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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