Cedar Rapids Community School District working with high school students on anti-racism initiatives

People in Cedar Rapids rallied against systemic racism and oppression on July 3, 2020. — Michael Schodin/Little Village

The Cedar Rapids Community School District is working to establish a Black student union at all four high schools and create a superintendent’s advisory council, among other action steps as part of the district’s anti-racist initiatives.

Superintendent Noreen Bush provided an update on these efforts at the Board of Education’s Monday meeting. The update was initially supposed to be in August, but that meeting was canceled due to the derecho.

The district hosted six virtual townhalls in July to “discuss supportive efforts toward an anti-racist school district.” There were three community town halls and three town halls dedicated to listening to students. Bush said more than 170 people attended the sessions.

The questions that guided the conversations centered around the district’s role in anti-racism efforts, what improvements can be made to support students and staff of color, and efforts the district has already implemented.

“We did feel it was important in these sessions to title them as anti-racism and not just an equity initiative,” Bush said. “As important as equity is, and it definitely is a pronouncement of commitment to our district, within the current context, not only in Cedar Rapids but also in our state, in our nation and in our world, our children of color, our employees of color, our community members of color are experiencing things differently. And we thought it was very important to say we are committed to being an anti-racism community and school district, and what can we do to make sure that our children, our staff, our families experience a welcoming environment.”

During the six town halls, there were five themes that surfaced, Bush said. These themes were student voice, professional development, teaching and learning, staffing and diversifying workforce, and community/parent support.

Justin Blietz, the district’s director of culture and climate, along with LaToya Harrington, the district’s diversity recruiter, have been working on how to implement the themes and ideas that were brought up during the July sessions. Blietz said they have been meeting with school districts across the country to see what they’re doing.

Blietz said he and Harrington have also been meeting with Raafa and Rahma Elsheikh, two Kennedy High School students who presented a list of Black Lives Matter demands to the board at the July 13 meeting.

“It’s no secret that Black people are systemically oppressed in the criminal justice system and healthcare, but arguably most importantly, education,” Rahma said during the meeting’s public comment period on July 13. “And this year, [CRCSD] is not immune to this nor has it been thus far, I’d like to say, completely supportive of its Black students. There are various instances where either I or another Black student has blatantly experienced racial discrimination in halls of your schools.”

One of the demands Raafa and Rahma presented was the creation of a Black Student Union at each high school. Blietz said there are students identified from each school who are leading these efforts and the district has been meeting with the students to help set this up.

Bush added that she has been working with each of the high schools to invite students to be part of a superintendent’s advisory group.

“We want to make sure that it is a cross representation of all students,” Bush said. “We are going to focus on equity as a team and listening to students voices and their suggestions about how they experience our schools. Hopefully they have a vertical perspective and could tell us from elementary to middle to high school how they’ve experienced our school district and suggestions that they have for improvement with the hopes that we’re looking at this from a system-wide experience, so they can also learn from each other the strengths that each school brings, as well as improvements we need to have as an entire system.”

“The students who not only presented at the board but students who came to our town halls are so excited to help lead those efforts.”

Rahma and Raafa Elsheikh read a poem during an event organized by the Advocates for Social Justice on July 18, 2020. The sisters also read a poem during a protest in June. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

Bush said once school starts there will be meetings put on the calendar and students from all four high schools will be invited to join the advisory group. Bush added that she is excited about the advisory group and that it will “help me grow and learn as a superintendent.”

A number of board members asked if there could be regular updates to the board about these efforts, as well as a timeline.

“I want to make sure that we don’t stop,” Board member David Tominsky said. “This is an inflection point, I feel it. I was really happy to see it on the agenda. It was too bad that we weren’t able to talk about it a month ago. But the derecho kind of postponed that. I just don’t want to use a pandemic and a derecho as a reason why we don’t address this very critical need — not just in our community but really around the world.”

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