Editor’s note: IowaWatch in a year-long investigation found that although each state is required to identify the bottom-scoring 5 percent of Title I schools every three years, it doesn’t mean these schools are “failing,” as some Iowa policymakers label them. Iowa’s 34 schools are on a “comprehensive” list. IowaWatch is featuring some of them.
Middle school has always been a time of change, but in 2021, the ability to adapt and persevere not just through adolescence, but through a global pandemic, showed just how determined kids can be.
“In today’s age at the middle school level … we truly have to be adaptive,” said Sheena Canady, principal at George Washington Carver. “Our kids have changed dramatically from when I experienced school. … Our families are changing, our communities are changing.
“Whenever there’s change, there’s an opportunity for new learning for everybody.”
George Washington Carver Academy is Iowa’s first STEM middle school, named after the famous agricultural scientist and inventor. Sixth through eighth grades are taught there.
The academy was listed as comprehensive, but has met its comprehensive status within two years. The school’s overall score is 47.03; the state average is 54.94.
Iowa’s 34 comprehensive schools are the Title I schools that score in the bottom 5 percent in the state based on students’ performance on the Iowa Statewide Assessment of Student Progress test, and/or for high schools, have a graduation rate below 67.1 percent.
In Iowa, 42.4 percent of all students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. At George Washington Carver Academy, that number is 88.1 percent. The school also has a higher percentage of English-language learners (8.2 percent), students with disabilities (21.6 percent), and minorities (81.3 percent) than state averages.
“I believe that all students can learn at a high level. I do believe there are some barriers to access for some of our kiddos, and that’s based on a lot of things,” Canady said.
Some of those things, like the socio-economics of a community, are out of educators’ control. But others, like teacher quality, professional development opportunities and leadership, are in their control. And those are the things staff at the school are focused on, she said.
After the school’s comprehensive designation, the first priority was to continue building a solid environment for students to learn. Second was focusing on making sure universal instruction was high quality. Finally, staff looked at all the supplemental needs students have, making sure those were being met.
After the school was listed as comprehensive, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted those needs even more.
“The pandemic has placed a sense of urgency on educating the whole child, and meeting kids where they are, and wearing the many hats of being an educator. It’s no longer just walking into a classroom and being able to teach the curriculum and do nothing else; there’s a special emphasis being placed on authentic relationships and understanding what our kids truly need holistically, and not that that wasn’t a thing prior, it’s just that the need is more obvious,” Canady said.
Social-emotional learning for students and for staff has come to the forefront, she said.
“The pandemic just placed us in a position of stress and need for nurturing and support and understanding, so we’ve done a bit of work with social-emotional learning for the adults as well. Because in order to educate well, you have to take care of yourself,” Canady said.
With a comprehensive status comes special funding to make changes.
“Not that I’m opposed to having the money, but I’m a firm believer that quality education can happen with a certain amount of resources,” she said.
And not all resources are simply financial. Beyond quality staff and curriculum, “I’m thinking about quality relationships, I’m thinking about quality family involvement and community involvement in the schools. … The money thing is temporary. Our learning that results from having this additional money needs to be permanent.”
General funding is also an important issue, and it’s concerning when lawmakers propose things like vouchers that would funnel taxpayer dollars to private schools and away from public schools, she said.
Charter school legislation passed last year in Iowa, but Senate File 159, which would have created the Student First Scholarship Program, did not. It has been brought back in the 2022 legislative session.
“I know that this is going to be a conversation that we have to address as a district moving forward to ensure we continue providing that quality education to all students, not just certain types of students,” Canady said. “Any time you talk money in public education and the loss of funding and resources, it becomes a concerning or a contentious place for me as a building leader, because in order to run a school, again, you have to have staffing, you have to have resources.”
Schools listed as comprehensive being thrust into political debates is difficult, not just for staff, but for middle schoolers who are more in tune with current events than younger children might be.
“Nobody wants to be a part of the title ‘failing,’” she said. “In a building like Carver we have additional hurdles to overcome, we have additional work on most days to do to put our students in a position of success and our community in a position of success. … Our kids hear that too, right? ‘I go to a failing school.’ What does that mean or suggest to them as individuals? I think we have an obligation as a community of adults to celebrate the things our kids are doing well.”
Schools like George Washington Carver have to balance challenging students academically with also giving kids opportunities to take pride in their individual talents and achievements.
“I work, personally, every day, to convince our kids that they are great individuals and they have a lot to offer this world, and we all learn at different rates, and we all have baggage and barriers. Our job is to help them overcome those barriers and arrive at a point of great success,” Canady said. “If I could replace the word ‘failing’ with something, I would say ‘not yet there,’ because I think that creates a sense of opportunity for growth and it’s also realistic. Not a single one of our students in this building is failing, and our building as a whole is not failing.”
Leah McBride Mensching is a freelance reporter for IowaWatch. She has worked as a reporter, editor, photographer and media researcher over the past 15 years, both as an independent journalist and as an editorial manager for WAN-IFRA, the global organization of the world’s press. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Iowa State University and a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.