Des Moines Public School’s new superintendent is a former special ed teacher, principal and Olympic athlete

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Dr. Ian Roberts, superintendent of Des Moines Public Schools. — DMPS photo

The Des Moines Public School Board voted unanimously on Tuesday to appoint Dr. Ian Roberts as the district’s new superintendent. Roberts will be the first person of color to lead the state’s largest school district.

“He is a proven champion for creating equitable outcomes for all students to thrive,” Board Chair Teree Caldwell-Johnson said at a news conference on Tuesday.

The 52-year-old Roberts is currently superintendent of Millcreek Township School District in northwestern Pennsylvania. Millcreek has approximately 6,400 students and 10 school buildings. DMPS has more than 31,000 students across its 64 school buildings.

“I am a champion for teachers. I am committed to coaching and developing leaders,” Roberts said at a DMPS news conference. “But allow me to reiterate: More importantly, every single child who knocks on our doors, families rest assured, they will receive a quality education that changes their trajectory to success.”

According to DMPS, Roberts comes to his new position with experience “leading schools in a number of large and mid-sized cities, including Washington D.C., Baltimore and St. Louis,” having “held the roles of Chief Schools Officer, Superintendent of Secondary Schools, Principal, and Senior Vice President of a charter management organization” before being appointed superintendent in Millcreek in 2020.

The son of immigrants from Guyana, Roberts grew up in New York City. “Prior to becoming a special education teacher, principal, district leader, and leadership trainer, Ian was a world class and Olympic Athlete,” DMPS said. He competed in the 8000 meters in the 2000 Summer Olympics as a member of Guyana’s national team.

DMPS, along with Iowa’s other largest school districts, has had a contentious relationship with Gov. Kim Reynolds. During the pandemic, large districts like DMPS, Cedar Rapids Community School District and Iowa City Community School District wanted to be able to create COVID mitigation policies that reflected the state virus spread in their communities, but Reynolds would not permit it. The governor even pushed through a new law stripping districts of some of their then-existing authority to set school policies.

The big districts have also spoken out against Reynolds’ anti-LGBTQ policies, in particular the new laws aimed at transgender students the governor signed into law last year and earlier this year.

Roberts will be taking over at DMPS, as districts across the state began to cope with the governor’s new voucher-style program that redirects public school funds to private schools. The districts will also be dealing with a new director of the Iowa Department of Education. In March, Reynolds appointed Chad Aldis to head the agency. Unlike Roberts, Aldis is not an educator, and does not have any district-level administrative experience. Aside from a job in the Florida Department of Education, Aldis’s career involved working for private groups that promote the interests of private schools, particularly lobbying for the use of public funds in private schools.

Roberts will formally begin his job as superintendent on July 1. His base salary will be $270,000.

“I want to thank the board for this opportunity, and I look forward to listening, learning and leading with input from my school community to increase opportunities for all students using empathy, cultural competency and continuous improvement to chart our path,” he said in a news release on Tuesday.