DA op-ed: Achieving equity through perpetual motion

By continually removing barriers to participation in after-school and summer programs, we are leveling the playing field for our most disadvantaged students
Stephen Murley is superintendent of the Iowa City Community School District.

Research suggests that taking part in extracurricular activities offers important academic, social and emotional benefits for students—and our own experience in the Iowa City Community School District confirms this.

However, there are barriers that prevent students from joining these activities, especially if they come from low-income or minority families.

Achieving equity requires constant attention. Because participation in after-school and summer programs is central to fostering equity in our district, whether these programs are administered by our schools or offered by community partners, we are continually taking steps to remove as many barriers to participation as we can.

Our goal is to make extracurricular activities as inclusive and accessible as possible so that any student or family who wants to take advantage of these opportunities can do so.

An activity for everyone

At our three high schools, we offer more than 38 clubs and 40 sports or athletic endeavors. Among the many activities our students can take part in are debate, drama, orchestra, yearbook, robotics, dance, chess, running, sustainability, gardening and even a club in which participants play the card game Magic: The Gathering.

If you can think of an activity, we probably have a club for it somewhere. And if students want to start a club that doesn’t exist, all they need to do is find a faculty member who is willing to be a sponsor.

Besides the extensive array of programs we offer in our schools, students can take advantage of many extracurricular activities through our community partners, such as the recreational services programs in our various municipalities and through the University of Iowa, which offers numerous opportunities for students.

These programs contribute to students’ academic and social-emotional development in ways that go hand-in-hand. For instance, students who take part in after-school or summer activities experience a real sense of belonging, of being a member of the community.

This helps them feel more connected to their school, which in turn leads to higher attendance rates and better effort in the classroom. In general, students who take part in extracurricular activities earn better grades and have fewer behavioral problems.

This isn’t something we have determined ourselves. Studies have verified that participation in after-school programs can improve students’ math and reading achievement, as well as how often they complete their homework and participate in class.

It can also lead to higher levels of self-confidence and better social behaviors. And we know that when students play a sport, they are more likely to continue an active lifestyle and lead healthier lives long after they graduate high school.

What’s more, the research is clear on the effects of the “summer slide.” The average student loses 10 weeks’ worth of academic learning over the summer, and this effect is even more pronounced for disadvantaged students.

Participation in after-school or summer programs—whether these are school-based programs or community activities—can help level the playing field for low-income students and minorities by giving them opportunities for enrichment they might not get at home.

Diverse population

Approximately 45 percent of our 14,000-plus students are minorities, and 39 percent come from low-income households. Seven percent of our students are the children of immigrants, and altogether there are 94 different languages spoken in our schools.

As diverse as our district is, the demographics of our individual schools can vary quite significantly. Some schools have high concentrations of low-income or minority students, and some do not. But within our after-school and summer programs, students typically have an opportunity to interact with a more diverse and well-balanced mix of their peers.

Getting to know others who share a common interest but who come from different backgrounds can broaden students’ perspectives. It can help them learn empathy and other skills they will need to interact with people who might be very different from themselves. Yet, several hurdles stand in the way of students’ participation in extracurricular activities, and these barriers affect our most vulnerable student populations the hardest.

For instance, while many of these activities are available to students free of charge, some have costs associated with them that can discourage participation among students with limited means. Another challenge that disproportionately affects low-income students is finding transportation to and from activities after school, on weekends and during the summer months.

Overcoming barriers

Language and cultural barriers poses yet another challenge. Sometimes there are cultural barriers that prevent our female students from participating in after-school activities, and we also have many students who must care for their younger siblings after school.  Here are three key strategies we use to overcome these barriers within our district:

  • Find ways to defray student costs. We are very fortunate to have a Community Education Fund that provides approximately $55,000 in scholarships each year to cover the cost of participation in after-school and summer activities for our neediest students. Students receive tutoring daily in reading and mathematics. They also participate in field trips once a week to places like the Iowa Children’s Museum and the Niabi Zoo. The scholarships include funding for student transportation, in addition to participation fees. Other sources of supplemental funding could include parent organizations, booster clubs, and donations from local businesses and charitable foundations.
  • Communicate the value of extracurricular activities to families. School systems have to help parents understand the tremendous value that extracurricular activities can bring to their child’s educational experience, especially if they come from another country and aren’t familiar with the culture of American schools.
    To bridge this cultural gap, we created a full-time Student & Family Advocate position in each school. The job of these professionals is to forge relationships among students, their families, and their schools while helping families navigate the school system.
    Our Student & Family Advocates work regularly with families to help them understand what extracurricular opportunities are available to students, as well as the benefits of participating. They also direct families in need of financial assistance to additional sources of funding that exist outside the district, such as the local chapter of the United Way and other community foundations.
  • Make sure parents and students are aware of opportunities. Spreading the word about the extracurricular opportunities available to students is critical. We know there is no single method of communicating that will reach all families, and so we use multiple forms of communication.
    Our website is a one-stop source of information about our district, but it requires parents to come to us for this information.


We can’t expect that all will do this, so we are constantly looking for new ways to push information out to families and get it into their hands conveniently.

We communicate with families with a cloud-based platform that streamlines school-to-home communication by distributing important updates and information about community resources to parents in the form of digital flyers. The flyers are inherently graphical, which helps the viewer quickly decipher the subject matter and decide if they are interested. This is especially helpful in bridging culture and language barriers.

We knew several years ago that we were struggling to send printed materials home to parents. If we sent the materials home in students’ backpacks, they would rarely make it into parents’ hands. Now, parents can receive digital flyers in their email. And even if parents don’t have access to a computer or the internet in their home, nearly 85 percent of our families have a smartphone and can access the information through their phone.

In addition, we make sure that all of this information is translated into multiple languages so that parents can easily comprehend it. Students must be able to help their parents understand what an activity entails and why they should participate.

Simply narrating this information to their parents often isn’t sufficient, which is why we make a strong effort to share information with parents in their home language, as well. Our district website, as well as our district mobile app, includes automatic translation services, which saves us a great deal of time and effort. Additionally, our digital flyers are made WCAG 2.0 A & AA compliant so they can be read by those who are visually impaired with the help of a screen reader.

By helping families understand the value of extracurricular activities and removing barriers to participation, we are closing opportunity gaps in our district and ensuring that all students have a chance to feel more connected to their school community. Our perpetual efforts are paying off, leveling the playing field for even our most disadvantaged students.

Stephen Murley is superintendent of the Iowa City Community School District.

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