We Can Direct Coming Changes

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, "Opinion," September 26, 2000, p. 9A

The educational opportunities now available to our school district don't come along very often.

Population projections show increased crowding in the district's northwest corridor. This translates into increased crowding in our schools' corridors.

To fail to respond is no longer an option.

The pessimists say we have a "boundaries problem." The optimists say we have “opportunities without boundaries.”

I'm an optimist.

To be human is to resist change. Educators and parents are no exception. Especially when everything’s going fairly well.

Now that overcrowded schools mean change of some kind is inevitable the question isn't "whether," or even "when," it's "which."

Even so, preliminary talk that mentions specific schools or neighborhoods can quickly become highly charged. Innovative solutions that are not "the way we've always done it" soon become the easiest target for the lightning strike.

That’s why describing another school district's responses to similar challenges may be a productive place to begin our community’s dialogue. As it happens there's one right up the road: Cedar Rapids.

Cedar Rapids is a school district that sees potential progress where others see political problems. It has never hesitated to change, to use its buildings in innovative ways.

Consider Wilson, built as a junior high in 1925. It became a junior and senior high school from 1935-1957. Then a junior high again for 28 years.

Next? It became a 6-9 middle school for one year, and a 6-8 middle school the next. This was followed by three years as K-8, four years as 1-8, and the last six years as 2-8.

Clearly, change is possible in Cedar Rapids!

Nor is Cedar Rapids' creativity limited to conventional school buildings.

Population shifts left Buchanan Elementary underutilized. Rather than close it, the district swapped it for a fire station. (Buchanan became the city's recreation center.)

That fire station became the first home for one of the district's internationally renowned alternative high schools, Metro East. Metro West began in a former elementary school shared with Kirkwood Community College.

Later, Tyler Elementary was also underutilized. Its population had shifted.

Rather than close that school, both alternative schools merged and moved in – saving the building and the neighborhood while strengthening Metro.

When declining enrollment threatened Grant Elementary it was transformed into a daycare, pre-school and all-day kindergarten. Monroe Elementary became a special education center. Now it relieves overcrowding at three elementary schools by taking all their kindergarten students.

Some schools were sold to churches or colleges. Coolidge, Grant and Jackson were closed, mothballed, and subsequently reopened when population shifted back.

Rather than duplicate multimillion-dollar athletic facilities, Cedar Rapids' three large high schools use one 27-acre athletic complex – and schedule games accordingly. They even share the facility with Coe College and Catholic schools. The money saved was available for additional classrooms.

Additions have been built on many schools. When no longer needed they’re  sometimes used as daycare centers.

Cedar Rapids' alternative schools, middle schools, magnet schools, year-round schools and all-kindergarten schools – among other innovations – are not embraced because they solve "boundary problems." Elimination of overcrowding is just a byproduct – as it would be for our district. Cedar Rapids implements these innovations because they improve students' education.

Johnson is a magnet school of the arts. Polk starts Spanish in kindergarten. Taylor and Polk have year-round schedules. Taft offers an alternative middle school.

Cedar Rapids, like many school districts, traded in all its junior highs for middle schools years ago.

The Iowa City Community School District’s stakeholders are rightfully proud of students' academic achievement. We like to think of ourselves as progressive.

It's kind of painful to be so badly bested by our neighbor to the north.

We now have a School Board and administration willing to dream and to implement educational improvements. But they have neither power nor inclination to force needed changes over adamant majority opposition.

So which will it be? Stick with our 19th century boundaries without opportunities, or seek solutions in 21st century opportunities without boundaries? The choice is yours.

Nicholas Johnson is an Iowa City School Board member. More information is available on his Web site www.nicholasjohnson.org.