Iowa City standoff: Nitpicking numbers

City High
Are City High (pictured) and West High really all that different? — photo by Rachel Jessen

Recently, an online conversation I participated in turned to differences between City High and West High. The discussion reflected assumptions about the two schools that are ingrained in many locals’ minds: City is preferable because it has greater diversity, and West is a more homogeneous school largely due to alleged “white flight” from the east to the west side of Iowa City.

These kinds of unexamined assumptions always get my MythBusters juices flowing. So I decided to look up some numbers, and what I found may surprise some folks. According to the Iowa City Community School District 2012-2013 enrollment report (available on the district website), the broad white/minority demographics of City and West High are … exactly the same. There are 69.34 percent “European Americans” (the district’s term) at City High and 69.35 percent at West; “minorities” comprise 30.66 percent at City, 30.65 percent at West. One-one-hundredth of a point difference—can you realistically get any closer to “exactly the same” than that?

Breaking it down reveals some more possible surprises. The African American population at City and West High is … almost exactly the same. In fact, although very close, West High has a noticeably higher percentage of African American students: 17.43 percent compared to 16.10 percent at City. Between the two schools, there is a significant difference in the percentage of Asian American and Hispanic Americans enrolled in each: At City, the student body is 4.04 percent Asian American and 10.17 percent Hispanic American; at West, it’s 8.97 percent Asian American and 3.90 percent Hispanic American.

Iowa City West High
Whatever gaps exist between City High and West High seem to be narrowing. — photo by Rachel Jessen

The west side of our greater community is considered more affluent, which bears out somewhat in the high school statistics. The percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced price lunches (the district’s criterion for socio-economic status and poverty—their words) at West comes in at 24.65 percent compared to City’s 35.60 percent. Granted, an 11-percentage-point difference is significant, but I suspect the spread is not as wide as many might assume, and many may be shocked to know that 1/4 of West High’s students are from families that earn below the poverty level.

The online conversation addressed relative academic achievement as well. And really, many of the distinctions between City and West are small. The average ACT score at West is around 26, at City around 25. The schools consistently rank at number one and two in ACT scores in the Corridor. Numerous other measures reveal that whatever gaps there may be between City and West are quickly narrowing if not closed already.

After I posted the above information to the conversation, another person chimed in. Her comment was that her child went to West, she loves West and there were “lots of Republican kids at City.” Time for mythbusting number-crunching again.

Let’s look at voter registration on the west side of the district (west Iowa City, University Heights, Coralville, North Liberty) and the east side (east Iowa City, Hills). According to the Johnson County Auditor’s website, as of Sept. 6, 2013, the voter registration breakdown is as follows (excluding negligible Green and Libertarian registrations):

West side: 41.39 percent Democrat, 21.86 percent Republican, 36.48 percent No Party.

East side: 46.74 percent Democrat, 16.65 percent Republican, 35.95 percent No Party.

That’s right—the east side has more Democrats than the west side, even when excluding the contiguous communities (46.71 to 43.65 percent).

West High
Some of you will be surprised by this information, some not. — photo by Rachel Jessen

While no precincts are majority Republican, the top seven Democratic precincts by registration are all on the east side. IC18-Longfellow, IC14-Twain and IC16-Lucas are the top three. I live in the Lucas area; one of our more liberal neighbors once lamented to my wife that we live in such a conservative part of town, apparently not realizing he lived in the third-most Democratic precinct in the entire area. At number eight on the list of liberal precincts comes IC04-Lincoln, the most Democratic neighborhood on the west side—and those kids now go to City. The top seven Republican-registered precincts are all on the west side—predominantly Coralville and North Liberty, but also IC08-Weber.

Some of you will be surprised by this information, some not. None of this is meant to suggest that east or west side, City or West High, are better somehow. My only point is one that I’ve been making for the past three months: Our assumptions about “who we are” often do not align with the facts or the complexity of the collection of individuals among whom we live.

Thomas Dean—for the record—lived for 1 ½ years on the west side of Iowa City and 3 ½ years in Coralville when he was in graduate school at the University of Iowa, and he has lived on the east side (in precinct 16—Lucas) of Iowa City since he and his family moved back to town in 1999.