This story is part of the series black iowa – still unequal?
Iowa's black students battle low expectations
North High School seniors talk about perceptions and concerns at one of the most racially diverse schools in Iowa. Rodney White/The Register
Not long ago, North High School was throttled by low expectations.
Struggling students, many of them minorities, were given seventh-grade worksheets or easy extra credit to help them pass. And although the Des Moines school had 900 students, it offered just one Advanced Placement class — only 15 students participated.
More than 10 years later, North has stepped up expectations. It now offers 14 Advanced Placement courses, and school leaders said they encourage every student to try at least one.
“I’ve had parents tell me on the phone, ‘My kid’s not smart enough,'" Vice Principal Eddie McCulley said.
His response? “We’re going to believe that they can.”
North's intense, multiyear effort was recognized by President Barack Obama when he visited the school in September.
But despite the turnaround, advocates say North and other Iowa schools are still falling short of adequately preparing many minority students, particularly African-Americans, for college or a career. And part of the problem, they say, is that teachers and school officials expect too little of those students, presuming they can't succeed at the same level as other kids.
“Reducing expectations … is one of the most hideous and offensive forms of prejudice that we can put upon that child," said former North Principal Vincent Lewis, who is black.
By state and national measures, black students in Iowa earn some of the lowest scores in the nation — below African-American students in states such as Illinois, West Virginia and Florida.
Fifty percent of black students in Iowa are on grade level, compared with 56 percent nationwide, according to National Assessment of Educational Progress data for 2013.
A Des Moines Register review of educational data shows:
- Only 15 percent of black students are academically ready for college in reading, compared with 43 percent of white students, according to 2015 state data.
- Seventy-nine percent of black students in the Class of 2014 graduated from high school in four years, compared with 82 percent of Hispanic students and 92 percent of whites.
- Between 42 and 50 percent of African-American students who enrolled at one of Iowa’s three regent universities graduated with a bachelor’s degree six years later, compared with 65 to 71 percent of white students, according to 2015 university data.
“I’m not surprised by the data, but I’m disturbed by it … it breaks my heart,” said Dionna Langford, an African-American member of the Des Moines School Board who represents schools in the northern part of the city.
But she’s hopeful about changes that are being made, especially at area high schools. Graduation rates are climbing in Des Moines, as they are across Iowa.
“We see bright spots,” she said.
Des Moines Superintendent Tom Ahart acknowledged that more needs to be done.
"This has been a pervasive issue for Des Moines for decades; we're not going to turn it around overnight," he said. "But we are taking some appropriate steps to start making systemic improvement."
BLACK IOWA: STILL UNEQUAL
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- Suburban schools struggle with rising diversity
- Science Center preschool expands its reach
- Black Iowa parents: We won't fail our kids
- 7 ways to fix Iowa's black achievement gap
- 3 educators: Here's why we do this
Working toward graduation
On a spring morning at North High School, Ric Baring walks the hallways as campus monitor, ushering students to class if they're late or loitering.
He has gotten to know teens who are at risk of not graduating, and he’ll sometimes pull them aside to talk with them about their future.
“The kids want to know that you really care,” he said.
North High School coach Ric Baring finds a way to make everyone's day better and help them give back to the school. Rodney White/The Register
Across the district, 82 percent of Des Moines students from the Class of 2014 graduated in four years, up from five years earlier, when 73 percent graduated.
Statewide, 91 percent of students in the Class of 2015 graduated in four years, possibly the highest rate in the nation. But among black students, it’s 79 percent.
The importance of earning a high school diploma can't be overstated, advocates say. Adults without a diploma earn almost $10,000 less annually than those with one, and almost $34,000 less than those with bachelor’s degrees, according to national labor data.
But as schools focus on helping more teens graduate, students and alumni said it’s vital that academic expectations be rigorous enough to prepare those who want to go on to college or a career.
Ahart agreed that classes need to improve academic rigor for all students, and pointed to the district's focus on Advanced Placement courses. It's a multistep process, he said. First, adding courses, then encouraging students to take the voluntary exams, then raising expectations so they earn college credit.
Right now, many don't.
"I don't think it's a unique phenomenon for kids of color," he said.
BY THE NUMBERS
School leaders said North’s turnaround effort began with a renewed commitment to believing that every student can achieve — and a team that supported the mission.
New administrators were hired, and some teachers and students were “coached out” of the school, particularly teens who leaders believed should have been enrolled in alternative programs.
School leaders changed the class schedule, adding college-prep courses and supports for struggling students, and hired teachers who believe in using a different approach.
As McCulley explained the efforts while walking through a hallway, a student strode up behind him and swore at him: “F--- you.”
McCulley turned, his expression remaining calm. “Quit cussing. What are you doing?” he said, telling her to get to class.
She laughed. But he remained stoic. “You know I love you,” he said.
She turned to walk to class, and he explained: “She knows what she’s doing. And I’m not kicking her out.”
McCulley said she is an example of what educators are calling “trauma-impacted,” students. It’s a broad term that doesn’t necessarily mean abuse, but includes traumatic experiences that impact a student’s ability to learn.
Students may have witnessed violent acts, had a deeply humiliating or disturbing experience, or grown up in a chaotic or disruptive home, where the lack of money or other resources created overwhelming stress, experts said.
It would be easy to send the girl to an alternative program, but McCulley said he sees her potential, with the right approach.
“My goal is for her to graduate,” he said. “We literally kick her back into class, over and over and over.”
Danger of lowered expectations
Expectations are shifting as well.
Fifteen years ago, North teachers said it was common for educators to not push teens academically, even allowing them to sleep in class out of a misguided sense of pity for their circumstances.
“You don’t mean to lower expectations. You think you’re helping,” said Sherry Poole, a longtime North teacher who’s now an academic interventionist. “It was the school that no one wanted to attend.”
At one point, enrollment dropped to the 900s, prompting discussions of closure. Instead, leaders focused on a turnaround effort. Now, about 1,200 students are enrolled.
Change has been steady, as teachers focused more on academics, Principal Michael Vukovich said.
"We have to show (students) we care and truly mean it."
Lewis, North's former principal, challenged reports of lower expectations on his watch, saying that some of the school’s reputation is "mythical.”
But he's also certain it happens in public education. In other states, for example, there have been reports of teachers approaching Advanced Placement assignments differently in lower-income schools, such as highlighting material for teens so they don't have to figure out what’s important.
Last school year, North students took 460 AP exams, ranking the school No. 16 on the 2015 Iowa AP Index, which measures access to college-prep courses as a percentage of enrollment.
Some teachers offer study sessions on Saturdays or stay after school to coach students, Poole said.
Not everyone earns college credit, teachers acknowledge, but they say there's still benefits to studying the more complex material. And they approach the exams as a “brain exercise,” to build academic stamina.
Other changes at North are aimed at students who are struggling academically, such as teachers "drafting" teens to work with them individually.
Senior Norris Hildreth transferred to North needing to retake two classes.
“Teachers push you to do your work," he said. "They really do care about us here, and they want us to be successful.”
But recent grads say more needs to be done. Iowa State University rising junior Sebrina Dixon graduated from North High School on the dean’s list, eager for college.
She struggled through her freshman and sophomore years. After talking with other college students, she realized they were better prepared. Their high school teachers had different requirements and more challenging assignments, including papers written with college-level notation.
“I was just in awe,” she said.
Despite improvements, black students at North, as at many Iowa schools, remain academically behind — while the majority of Hispanic and white students are at grade level.
Three years ago, 42 percent of black students at North were on grade level, which grew to 46 percent in 2015. That compares with 59 percent of Hispanic students and 69 percent of white students, according to state data.
Only 5 percent of black teens at North are at the more rigorous college-ready reading level, compared with 14 percent of Hispanics and 26 percent of white students.
Some wonder if efforts aimed at having more students succeed are preventing others from advancing beyond grade-level proficiency.
A new grading system, for example, no longer docks students for late assignments or missing tests, so long as they can demonstrate they've learned the content.
Students such as senior Tytiaunna Johnson, who is black, appreciates the change. “North is flexible, and they understand that it’s not just school that is going on, but we have lives outside of school too.”
But students such as senior Tajohnie Milton counter that after high school, college professors or company managers will not have the same flexible approach — and she’d rather get used to those “strict” expectations now.
After graduating this spring, she will attend college in a few months. And she wants to be prepared.
“I think that’s failing the students, because they are used to four years of being babied and pampered,” said Milton, who is black. “And then when you step outside of high school, you’re in for a rude awakening.”
Bettering education: Get involved
The Des Moines Register is researching ways to connect volunteers with organizations working to better the education and circumstances of black youths.
If you’re interested in getting involved, or are part of a nonprofit working with Des Moines-area black youths, contact education reporter Mackenzie Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the school
North High School serves about 1,200 students. It's located off Sixth Avenue, just east of Prospect Park and north of the Des Moines River.
More than 4 in 5 students at North qualify for free lunch. For a family of four, that means earning less than $31,525 a year. The school serves about 70 percent minority students, including 25 percent black, which also counts African immigrants, and 27 percent Hispanic. In addition, 1 in 10 students are learning English.
About this project
The “Black Iowa: Still Unequal?” project seeks to examine the realities of the black experience in Iowa, to offer a platform for discussion, and to engage Iowans in working toward making our state a place of inclusion, justice and prosperity for all.