Teachers and leaders within Iowa City schools address racial injustice in lower education

Amid current protests and civil unrest in Iowa City in regard to the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, institutions in the K-12 education system are facing scrutiny nationwide for systemic racism.


Jake Maish

A sign for the Iowa City Community School District is seen outside the district’s administration building on Tuesday, April 28.

Mary Hartel, News Reporter

As demonstrations continue to advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement at both the local and national levels, lower education is one of many institutions where community members are calling for acknowledgement of systemic racism.

Monique Cottman, a sixth-grade teacher in the Iowa City Community School District, said she believes there are racial injustices present within the lower-education school system.

“The insidious nature of white supremacy is that it has infected every aspect of our community,” Cottman said. “And so when I think about school, I think about the number of Black students that are disciplined and how they’re disciplined, I think about how Black students are identified for special education, I think about how Black students don’t get to see Black teachers, how Black students don’t get to learn Black history at school… all of those to me are very connected to the racial injustice that we’re now talking about with policing, but it’s present in so many other areas.”

Cottman, who has worked in Iowa City schools since 2006, said herself, other teachers, and community leaders have been having race-related conversations long before the murder of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests — though there has been a recent uptick in these conversation in the district.

There is now more political pressure on the district and school board to take immediate action, Cottman added.

“Racism is one of those things that we teach every American without specifically having a class, right? No one goes to school and has a class on how to be racist, but in looking at all of the different representations that there are of people in the media, looking at how people talk about other people and their families, these sorts of beliefs and attitudes are perpetuated throughout the generation, so it’s important for schools to recognize that and step in and say ‘We need to be anti-that,” Cottman said.  “We need to teach anti-racist education to counteract all of these other racist narratives that students are exposed to on a daily basis.”

Conversations surrounding race in schools will continue to happen once the start of the movement —caused by George Floyd’s death — has passed, Cottman added, and she hopes the community can work with the school district in counteracting racist narratives.

“The officers who participated in the murder of George Floyd didn’t just get to that point overnight — there are decades and beliefs and actions that go into that,” she said. “So if we can recognize as a public-education system that we have a role in stopping that development, and that it starts in preschool, it starts in kindergarten, in first grade, it starts with teaching real American history, not just the whitewashed Eurocentric version that we subscribed to for years, than we can start to maybe make a difference and make more of an impact.”

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Iowa City Community School District Assistant Superintendent Matt Degner, and soon-to-be interim superintendent of the district, said he recognizes the racial injustice within the education system.

“I think any time you look at a large institution, there’s going to be systemic practices that negatively affect structurally disadvantaged people,” Degner said.

Degner said that Iowa City schools issued a statement of solidarity in response to the recent acts of racial violence and anti-Black discriminatory practices.

“Our hearts definitely hurt for those directly affected by the violence and indirectly affected by the violence and … we want to make it clear to our students and staff and community that Black lives matter,” Degner said.

Degner said the District is dedicated to actively improving its systems and providing a commitment to each member of its community.

He added that the school district has met with administrators and staff members of color to hear about their experience and any difficulties they have faced in Iowa City schools to try to identify where it may be falling short.

“Any time in this situation, our first responsibility is to make sure we’re listening,” Degner said.

Degner added that the Iowa City Community School District has many goal areas that still need improvements in regard to its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion plan.

“The system has to work for everybody and right now it doesn’t,” he said. “And so that’s incumbent upon us as an educator and as a professional to improve that. And so I just think that’s a core value for me and I think for our system in general it needs to be a core value about how we approach our work every day. Because if we’re not approaching it with that layer then we know we’re leaving kids and families behind, and that’s not something that we can continue to tolerate.”

Iowa City Community School District Director of Diversity and Cultural Responsiveness Laura Gray said staff members within the district have started addressing issues related to race in response to the racial injustices prevalent within society and lower education.

“I know that the teachers and that the administrators have started to form book clubs around race just trying to have a better understanding of what’s happening, so it definitely has sparked a lot of people being reflective and wanting to show up better and wanting to help,” Gray said.

Gray noted that systemic racism and race-related injustice within the school system and in general, however, is not a new phenomenon.

“Whether it’s lower or upper education, we’re all experiencing systems of inequity,” Gray said. “Those systems have been in place far before any of us were born, and there’s people who strategically want to maintain that — and they do.”

A primary factor in eradicating racial injustice in the classroom is ensuring that teachers have a clear understanding of diversity and how to teach culturally relevant content, Gray added.

“No one is training people for the diversity that is coming and that is here already,” Gray said. “The systems of inequity have been around forever and a lot of times [during] people’s upbringing, either they weren’t exposed to diversity, or their impression of the diversity around them is filled with negative stereotypes based on their implicit bias. So, if it’s embedded either in the curriculum or strategically placed within the system of school to educate even at the younger age so that the children are showing up appropriately around diversity, then that would change our nation, I believe.”