This story is part of the series black iowa – still unequal?
Why Valley H.S. still wrestles with race a year after fights
It has been more than a year since fights along racial lines rocked Valley High School. For some, the fights were emblematic of a growing divide within a school that has become increasingly diverse.
It has been more than a year since fights along racial lines rocked Valley High School.
On Feb. 12, 2015, prompted by a racially charged post on social media, students reported a heated exchange that grew into a brawl in the school cafeteria. Teens stood on tables as others threw punches, shoved or pulled hair.
By the time classes ended, officials counted three to four fights stoked by racial tensions.
For some, the fights were emblematic of a growing divide within a school that has become increasingly diverse. What was once a largely white school now has about 2,000 students in 10th through 12th grade, roughly one-fourth of whom are minorities.
In the wake of the explosive confrontation, Valley leaders have worked to improve the climate. They’ve laid out a multiyear approach, from holding community meetings to training staff to undergoing a diversity study.
But some believe Valley is still not doing enough, or moving fast enough, to improve race relations, even as some still deny that race played any part in the conflict.
“It was race, completely,” said Del Marion, a community member who is black and whose grown children attended Valley. “Bull.”
Addressing the fights
At the first community meeting after the fights, parents and others came angry, demanding answers and reassurances that their children were safe. And many left unhappy with what they heard, noting that the word “race” wasn’t used for the first hour.
“We were trying to make it not about race,” said Assistant Principal David Maxwell, who is black. “After the forum — the feedback we got — we realized we needed to have a conversation about race, because that’s what people came looking for.”
For some, race is an uncomfortable or even confrontational topic. And others are hesitant to participate, believing it’s safer to not talk about race, lest they be criticized for saying the wrong thing.
As Maxwell worked with other educators and community members, and in subsequent staff training, he offered advice: “We have to have grace.”
That approach was also included in community meetings, where discussions were carefully moderated, and conversations guided with pre-written questions and time limits.
But at the last meeting held this spring, some went off script. A former school board member stood up and apologized.
Milton Cole, who is white, told the crowd his ancestors in colonial Virginia had servants and slaves, and he described how they had "trampled on the necks” of black ancestors.
Some welcomed the apology, while others visibly tensed.
“That was absolutely heartfelt,” Cole said later. “I am a person who benefited from being white, and I ponder and wonder how many times I benefited at the price of someone else filling that slot.”
In the classroom and school hallways, Valley students said they noticed a difference this year, including hearing fewer racial slurs among students.
In addition, students involved in the fight are no longer on campus.
Three graduated, and others attended Walnut Creek, West Des Moines’ alternative school, administrators said. One girl has not been allowed back on campus after a fight during a homecoming assembly.
Other efforts have soothed tensions, including classroom discussions about what happened.
“The kids don’t have a lot of details, but they have questions,” said Melissa Kelly, who teaches sociology and economics. “It’s not gone. It’s still there. But it allows kids to say, 'OK, things are being done, I can be part of the solution.'"
Other conversations have aligned with curriculum, including as part of a civil rights unit in U.S. history.
In some classes, students asked questions about race to Maxwell, who offered his perspective as a black man. During one period, student Kyan Love volunteered after his teacher noticed his passion about civil rights, and he offered to share his experiences in Iowa as well as in Mississippi.
“I want to be the one to pop the bubble,” Love said of the denial that he believes some white students harbor in thinking racial tension doesn’t exist in Iowa.
More on the way
Valley leaders say other changes are on the way.
The school will be adding a class on social diversity, a sociology course that explores many forms of diversity in society.
The stand-alone course will focus on: “Who are you, who are they, and what’s this we vs. they?” said Kelly, who will teach it.
“A lot of kids who don’t do well in classes, they do well here,” she said. “They can write a book about different family types or racial diversity. … I can empower them."
Other teachers have and will continue to review curriculum. Teacher Kevin Neal began teaching about Cesar Chavez, a labor leader who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, for example. The Hispanic leader had previously been left out.
In addition, the school is working with Iowa State University professors on completing an equity audit, which includes interviewing students, teachers and families about their experiences. They’ll also look at school data, such as disproportionality in areas such as gifted and talented and college-prep Advanced Placement courses.
“My approach has always been, first, to help people to understand the importance of this topic,” assistant professor Daniel Spikes said. “We talk about: These are the concerns, and bottom line, we are being measured in how we meet the needs of our students.”
Tim Miller, the school principal, declined to comment on study findings but said results will be available to the public once it’s complete.
State data offer a glimpse into the racial disparities that exist at Valley:
- Seventy percent of black students are on grade level, compared with 78 percent of Hispanic and 92 percent of white students — a 22-point gap.
- About 35 percent of black and 31 percent of Hispanic students are considered on track for college, compared with 55 percent of white students.
- About 86 percent of black and 91 percent of Hispanic teens graduate in four years, both less than white teens, at 94 percent.
Such disparities are seen across the state, in lower-income as well as affluent areas.
On the more rigorous college-ready benchmarks, for example, on average only 14 percent of black and 23 percent of Hispanic students are considered ready for college reading, compared with 43 percent of white students.
It’s too early to tell how Valley's study will impact the school, but leaders have promised change. Officials say they plan to improve the academics and opportunities of minority students, in addition to preventing racial tension from boiling over again.
“When you have diversity in schools, at any moment you can have friction between those groups,” Maxwell said. “Unless you know how to manage that friction, it can really evolve quickly into a bad situation.”
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
Valley High School serves about 2,000 students in 10th through 12th grade. It's located in West Des Moines. About 1 in 4 students qualify for reduced lunch. For a family of four, that means earning less than $44,863 a year. The school serves about 25 percent minority students, including 10 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Asian and 5 percent black. About 4 percent 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.