The Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action that Ames schools held in February continue to have ramifications for the district — in the form of a targeted accreditation review from the state, but also awards.
The district began Black History Month on Feb. 1 with Black Lives Matter at School week, during which teachers engaged students with guiding principles through free resources from outside organizations. Stated goals for the week included to affirm students’ diverse Black identities, offer students a sense of belonging they might not otherwise have been feeling, and expand students’ perspectives on Black history and life.
The responses and results included praise, criticism, a tense hearing before an Iowa House committee, possibly a role in the resignation of then-superintendent Jenny Risner and definitely a role in the formation of a local political action committee.
More on what’s happened so far:
Interim Superintendent Paula Vincent said at a school board meeting last month that the Iowa Department of Education had given Ames two weeks to respond to an inquiry and to provide “documentation around complaints that they received last February.”
Vincent added that the department was tying that to a process known as a targeted accreditation review.
She said department officials would be in the district, likely at the end of this month, interviewing members of the community, staff and students, and that the district was told to anticipate some kind of result in early November.
What is a targeted accreditation review?
Department of Education spokeswoman Heather Doe said the department uses targeted reviews “to gather information and produce findings about a particular issue in a district.”
Doe said the department does one or two such reviews in an average year. The duration of a review varies, based on the amount of information, on-site document reviews and interviews, and findings to be addressed in a final report.
“The outcomes of a targeted review may include technical assistance and support provided to the district, an issuance of citations and a required action plan, or a more intensive review. Our focus is always to help districts and schools find solutions to meet requirements outlined in state law,” Doe added.
Regarding the review, district spokesman Eric Smidt said: “We will be actively working with the Iowa Department of Education to answer any questions that they have.”
What’s the nature of the complaints about Ames’ Black Lives Matter week?
Doe said the department “received numerous complaints from patrons in the district during the late winter and spring, after the Black Lives Matters Week of Action was announced in the district.”
The complaints received “were about the instructional materials and resources, communication processes, and district policies and procedures that were followed” during the week.
At a hearing in March before the Iowa House Government Oversight Committee, Republican lawmakers told district and school board officials who testified that they had received complaints from parents, teachers and others that teaching materials previously posted by the district were morally objectionable or politically one-sided.
Risner conceded to the committee that the week could have been handled better — that materials the district didn’t necessarily use should not have been posted, and that there should have been more time for people to review the materials and give feedback.
Some committee members also raised concerns that students, families or teachers who had opted out of learning or teaching materials during the week had faced retaliation.
School board member Monic Behnken responded that the board had not received any communications that indicated there had been any repercussions for opting out.
Assistant superintendent Jeff Hawkins — then the district’s executive director of education — also said he had not been told from administrators of any instances where parents who asked to opt their child out were told they could not, or situations in which a parent expressed concerns about what happened in classrooms.
“Those things that might be coming to other members of the (House) committee are not coming to us,” Hawkins said.
He added that seven teachers had opted not to teach using some of the materials provided for the Black Lives Matter Week of Action.
“No teacher was forced to teach something” that they objected to, he said.
Committee chairwoman Rep. Holly Brink, R-Oskaloosa, said she had heard from 11 teachers with concerns.
Since then, critics of the district’s Black Lives Matter week have been politically organizing to try to change the district’s direction.
Over the summer in Ames, residents Eve and Bryan Lederhouse and others organized a political action committee called “Ames Deserves Better” seeking to have influence in the November school board election.
Brink attended the PAC’s kickoff event in Ames.
Eve Lederhouse had spoken out against the district’s Black Lives Matter week ahead of it, saying she felt the district had overstepped the bounds of what’s up to parents to teach their children.
While Lederhouse said her family embraces diversity of thought, “and like you, we teach our child to love all people no matter how they look, think or act,” she was concerned the sections of the week’s materials that focused on affirming transgender and queer people were contrary to what her family believes about human sexuality and family values.
One of Ames Deserves Better’s platforms, on “social responsibility,” speaks specifically against the Black Lives Matter week, other alleged efforts “to press controversial agendas into the curriculum of all grades” and the proposal for the district to decide before Jan. 1 whether to end the use of school resource officers after the end of the current school year.
Public campaign documents released so far do not indicate whether the PAC has raised any money, or if so, how much and from whom.
The district’s Black Lives Matter week has also been winning awards
In August, the Ames school district recognized that it had received what it said was the first “School Mental Health Justice Award” at the ninth annual School Mental Health Conference in Des Moines.
The district said the award credited its “relentless advocacy for intersectional school mental health against all odds,” and specifically recognized work during the Black Lives Matter week.
A picture published by the district also shows an award for “2021 School Mental Health Organization of the Year.”
Risner said in March during the House committee hearing that students ignored in curriculum, including by certain concepts of family or gender, “are experiencing mental health challenges on a regular basis. They are trying to commit suicide. We have data on that. It is my job, ethically and morally, to ensure that I am doing everything I can to set a space for those students where they feel loved, accepted and safe.”
The district also over the summer received two Iowa Character Counts awards — one of which was the “2021 School of Character Award” for the district’s equity and critical consciousness work, including the Black Lives Matter week.
Nominations for the award came from an Ames parent, Ames United Church of Christ — co-signed by Amy E. Smith, chair of the church’s social justice committee and who has since declared as a school board candidate — Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Ames and the YSS youth services and development organization.
Phillip Sitter covers education for the Ames Tribune, including Iowa State University and PreK-12 schools in Ames and elsewhere in Story County. Phillip can be reached via email at [email protected] He is on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.