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.

In Burlington, schools are busy places.

Not just between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m., but before and after school, and in school-related programs and meetings.

Cassie Gerst is Burlington Community School District’s outreach and grant coordinator, and the way she sees it, education is everyone’s responsibility.

“We have 42 partners in the community that we actively work with in order to assist us with … providing families and students with the supports they need,” Gerst said.

Those partners are an integral part of the district’s support system, and in supporting the school district, they’re supporting the entire community, she said.

Last year, 256 youth in the district out of nearly 3,600 were classified as homeless, based on the McKinney-Vento Act, which is a federal act that defines homelessness and unaccompanied homeless youth, and provides rights and services to children and youth experiencing homelessness, she said.

Three schools in Burlington are on the state’s list of comprehensive schools, which 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.

Black Hawk Elementary School, Sunnyside Elementary School and James Wilson Grimes School are all elementary schools teaching kindergarten through fourth grade.

Since being designated as comprehensive, the schools have all met their comprehensive status within two years, and one, James Wilson Grimes, has also met its targeted status.

Based on scoring outlined by the Every Student Succeeds Act, the state average score for schools is 54.94. Black Hawk has an overall score of 46.47, Sunnyside has a score of 49.08 and James Wilson Grimes has a score of 53.4.

All three schools also have a high percentage of students on free and reduced-price lunches: 76 percent at James Wilson Grimes, 66.5 percent at Sunnyside and 70.1 percent at Black Hawk.

The school district provides free after-school programming for all students through 8th grade. Kids in after school programming get a snack, help with their homework, and access to clubs and partner organizations such as 4-H, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Des Moines County Conservation, the public library, Southeastern Community College and a mentor program, all of which they can sign up for at school.

“We try really hard to provide additional services, supports and opportunities for our kids and families at no cost so they can have the opportunities that all the other kids might have,” Gerst said. “We want the kids to survive and thrive. The mission of the district is to have a profoundly positive impact on the child’s adult quality of life. So that goes beyond this month, or getting you to school, which we work really hard to do, but also, ‘How can I impact you so that you can be successful and thrive when you’re an adult?’”

Viewing education and public schools as being in a silo is hurting Iowa, because education is linked with every other area of the community, from economic and workforce development, to infrastructure, to health care, said Pat Coen, superintendent of Burlington Community School District.

“Education cannot be in this battle in isolation,” he said. “We have to do it in a way where we’re working together and not in a way where we’re isolating individuals or sections of a governmental agency, such as education.”

When government leaders call schools “failing,” they’re casting blame, rather than helping them as they do the work not just of educating kids, but also of creating an entire support system for children and their families, educators said.

The bottom line is that kids can’t get an education if they don’t have supports they need in other areas of their lives, Coen said.

“We do a weekly inter-agency synchronization meeting,” he said. “All these social service providers meet with the schools, with principals, with social workers, and synchronize effort and resources to assure … to make sure no families are falling through the cracks and not receiving services that they direly need.”

Burlington is experiencing more socioeconomic adversity than many other districts in the state, which means the school district has more needs to serve, said Cory Johnson, curriculum director at Burlington Community School District.

Black Hawk, Sunnyside and James Wilson Grimes being identified as comprehensive means the ESSA system is working as it was designed, he said.

“The ESSA model … was truly developed out of an intent to identify districts who have higher levels of needs, and then to allocate resources towards those needs” then provide them with a framework of support, he said. “Strong Iowa schools are an integral part of strong Iowa communities.”

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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