Striving for urban school equity

Des Moines Superintendent Thomas Ahart drives education gains as poverty and ELL needs rise
By: | Issue: September, 2015
August 13, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa Ñ The multicolored poles standing sentry outside Des Moines Public Schools’ Findley Elementary may not look like a show of force. But such unusual works of art that students installed on the front lawn in May represent a daring experiment in a low-income neighborhood, taunting would-be vandals with a striking and, hopefully, enduring statement about the transformative power of education.

The display reflects Des Moines Public Schools Superintendent Thomas Ahart’s drive to bring equity, pride and higher achievement to a once-struggling district that is far more diverse than the rest of Iowa. He faces a conservative state system that perhaps hasn’t come to grips with his district’s needs, particularly when it comes to the amount of funding provided for Des Moines English language learners. It’s a group that in the last few years has been inflated by refugees from Myanmar, Nepal and other impoverished countries.

He must also contend with state tests that label some of his efforts a failure despite the growth made by the student body, more than two-thirds of which qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch.

“One of the single biggest things I’ve done as superintendent is I don’t put as much stock in these test scores as everybody else does,” he says, sitting in his freshly appointed conference room in the district’s brand new headquarters. The building sits on a leafy street just west of Des Moines’ modest skyline and the river that cuts through the heart of the increasingly vibrant Midwestern city once dominated by the meatpacking industry.

Ahart puts more stock in students’ Advanced Placement course and test performance because they better indicate college success. The district has therefore quadrupled the number of students taking AP classes, despite fears among some in the community that expansion would degrade Des Moines’ established programs.

Four years ago, only one of Des Moines’ high schools ranked in the top 50 for AP test performance in Iowa. Now, four high schools are in the top 20.

And Des Moines’ graduation rate has been rising steadily since 2009, when the state began using a new formula. The Class of 2014 hit an all-time high of nearly 82 percent, a 2.5 percent increase over the previous year.

Respect the teachers

Superintendent Thomas Ahart focuses on the success and development of his teachers, says Connie Boesen, who has been a Des Moines school board member for 12 years.

Ahart admits it can be hard to bring educators to Iowa because it has no mountains or oceans.

Under a contract Ahart created three years ago when he was associate superintendent, first-year teachers receive a higher salary if they agree to spend 90 extra minutes a week and two more days a year in PD focused on instruction in an urban environment.

In their fourth year, those teachers can begin a master’s program designed and paid for by the district. The teachers also agree they will spend two more years in the district after earning their master’s. He believes most teachers will stay with the district after that, and become the next group of administrators.

“Tom’s very passionate about the kids and providing the best educational opportunity,” Boesen adds. “But he also wants to provide the best place to work for people coming into the profession and staying in the profession.”

“We in education do ourselves a disservice if we relegate planning to performance on one or two tests,” Ahart says. “Then, we’ve automatically limited the potential of all these kids. Even if we knock the doors off a math test, what if a student’s passion is somewhere else?”

Earlier in his life, Ahart’s passion lay in the theater and broadcasting, which he studied in college before getting his teaching credential from the University of Northern Colorado, to “do some good in the world.” But his belief in education goes back much further. When Ahart, now 48, was a child, his fatherÑa doctorÑmoved his family from eastern Iowa to a farm in Dow City, in the more rural western part of the state.

The family started farming in the “driest spring on record in Iowa,” Ahart says with a laugh, and he went from middle class to qualifying for reduced-price lunch. He went to school in a K12 building with 400 students, and if going to college was never in doubt, paying for it was.

“I did lots of baling hay and taking care of cattle, and learned the value of hard work and self-reliance,” says Ahart, a fair-haired and fit administrator who brims with energy. “I was going to go to college, but I knew I was going to have to figure out my own way to do itÑand that’s foundationally what we have been trying to work on with our students in poverty.”

Many of the poor families in his district have struggled financially for generations. And often, when parents had rough times in school, they don’t see education beyond high school as possible or important, Ahart says.

“If you don’t see a higher education as a necessary next step in your life’s pathway then K12 becomes diminished,” he says. “We’re trying to change people’s thinking about their goals for their kids.”

Turning around an Iowa outlier

Capping a career as a language arts teacher, middle school principal and administrator, Ahart rose to the top job in 2013, after serving a few years as Des Moines’ associate superintendent. His predecessor, Nancy Sebring, had been planning to leave Des Moines to run Omaha Public Schools, and resigned abruptly after it was revealed she had used her district email account to exchange sexually explicit messages with a lover.

Sebring, who also resigned from the Omaha job, has since sued the district for releasing the emails to the Des Moines Register. The case is pending.

Ahart, meanwhile, continues the work of turning the district around. While most people support the concept, committing substantial resources to needy, struggling students sometimes draws criticism and concern. “It’s about having the courage to put things in place that may be counterintuitive to conventional wisdom,” says Ahart.

Des Moines Public Schools

Students: 32,396 (2014-15)
Schools: 39 elementary schools, 10 middle schools, 6 high schools, 5 special schools/programs, 4 early childhood centers
Staff and faculty: 4,812
Per-student expenditure: $6,514
Students on free or reduced-price lunch: 72%
English-language learners: 18.5%
Graduation rate: 82%
Yearly budget: $531 million (for 2015-16)

For instance, one of Iowa’s first 1-to-1 programs launched a few years ago at North High School, one of the poorest of Des Moines’ 10 comprehensive secondary schools. While 95 percent of North’s students get free and reduced-price lunch, 1-to-1 sparked gains in academic performance and graduation rates.

“The improvements they saw had less to do with the laptops than it had to do with what the laptops said about how we value kids in that school,” Ahart says.

Ahart believes it’s in the nation’s best interest when districts commit substantial energy and resources to educating and inspiring the underprivileged, underperforming and unpreparedÑincluding ELLs, with whom he has ample experience.

Knowing ELLs

Ahart spent the first seven years of his career teaching language arts in a high school in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, home to predominantly Hispanic service workers employed at world-famous ski resorts in nearby Vail and Aspen. He taught everything from developmental reading to speech, debate, advanced composition and literature. He also oversaw the yearbook and directed theater productions.

He then took a similar teaching assignment in western Iowa, near his hometown in a district with a high Hispanic population drawn to jobs in nearby meatpacking plants. The Denison schools had the highest ELL percentage in Iowa. Meanwhile, he was president and chief negotiator for the teacher’s association.

Later in his career, after getting his master’s degree in public administration, he was curriculum director in Marshalltown, a high poverty district near Des Moines with many ELLs.

Not all Iowa districts have seen the same rapid increases in ELLs as MarshalltownÑor Des Moines, where as many as 100 different languages are spoken by students. The district’s ELL population has grown from about 2,000 students 10 years ago to around 6,200 this past school year. That includes refugees who have never been to school, have spent years in refugee camps and aren’t literate in their first language.

Superintendent Ahart’s Favorite things

Teacher: Joel Pedersen, high school instrumental music teacher
Pastime/Hobby: Theater (I act and direct when time allows); listening to a wide range of music
Sports: Enjoy college football and basketball; I follow Iowa teams and University of Denver hockey; San Diego Chargers; Boston Red Sox
City: Mobile, Alabama (I’ve never been, but look forward to it someday)
Travel destination: Ireland (I’ve never been, but look forward to it someday)
Dessert: Any pie that my mom makes, especially mulberry-rhubarb pie and mile-high ice cream pie
Books: The Miracle of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall and Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Music: John Hiatt and Patty Larkin are my two favorites
Facebook or Twitter: I have a Facebook account that I don’t use; I’m just dipping my toe into the world of Twitter @ahart_thomas
Heroes: Henry A. Wallace

“We don’t know much about some of the populations we work with,” says Vinh Nguyen, the district’s ELL program coordinator, who first arrived in the U.S. as a refugee from Vietnam. “Some of these students don’t know their first language, so building literacy in a second language becomes very challenging.”

Ahart says he has been “partially successful” in changing the way Iowa provides ELL funding, so more money goes to schools with greater need.

The district operates four Intensive English Language Centers, which are designed to teach conversational and academic language to students, up to age 21, who have had little schooling.

Students can spend nine weeks to a year in the program, depending on their age and literacy levels. Students also learn social skills that help them adapt to American customs.

Yet strides made in Des Moines and similar school systems may not be revealed by high-stakes tests like the Iowa State Assessments. For example, an immigrant or refugee student who grows from 5 percent proficiency in reading to 30 percent is labeled failing, despite the impressive growth.

Those tests are culturally biased, Ahart says, and unaligned with his district’s curriculum. “If we take a 13-year-old Burmese refugee who’s illiterate in any language and think he’s going to be proficient on a state test in three years, that’s not a realistic expectation,” Ahart says.

“It doesn’t mean the student or school has failed. But we have this simple, pervasive No Child Left Behind approach to assessing the effectiveness of schools that’s not conducive to doing the right thing for our students.”

Investing in low-income areas

Under Ahart’s direction as superintendent, the district has invested heavily in low-income students and families. Its two newest buildings are changing the face of education in the city’s neediest neighborhoods. At Edmunds Elementary, students speak about 30 different languages and a main school hallway is lined with flags of their native countries, which range from Afghanistan to Nepal to Sudan.

All of Edmunds’ students receive free and reduced-price lunch, 64 percent are English language learners and more than half of them are refugees. “The previous building had no windows,” Principal Jaynette Rittman says. “It has brought a sense of pride to have this beautiful new building in the heart of the city.”

Literacy proficiency scores have risen from 33 percent to 44 percent this past school year while math increased from 36 percent to 50 percent.

The other new building, the Jesse Franklin Taylor Center, opened in fall 2014. There, natural light pours through huge windows on students in an alternative middle school programÑbut the improvements go further.

“This is a state-of-the-art building,” Principal Randi Oleson says. “It was a huge turning point to build something for kids who have typically been shoved into old buildings or shuffled around from school to school.”

The center follows the Des Moines curriculum, but teachers provide highly individualized instruction to students who get regular breaks during the day to recharge. Students have been given wider access to technology and also get intensive social skills training. The school’s social worker and counselors can help students dealing with mental health or other emotional issues.

“We’re owning the idea of being an urban district,” she says. “It’s big a shift to focus on the uniqueness of our situation and the diversity of our students.”

Finding students’ passions

In 2010, the district offered Iowa’s first International Baccalaureate program, and it has since expanded to 10 schools and more than 4,000 students. The district also continues to upgrade its Central Campus, a regional technical high school that offers a wide range of career-focused programs. It houses everything from a full-service automotive shop and an urban leadership program to a large marine biology lab with several rows of fish tanks that students maintain 365 days a year. Its student-teaching courses train students for education fields and provide real classroom experiences in the district.

“I want to have every one of my graduates move next door to me. I don’t care if they work for the city sanitation department or they’re a defense attorney or a musician, teacher,” Ahart says. “I care that they’re making their own way, contributing to society and when I’m out of town, I can trust them to care for my dogs.”

This philosophyÑalong with AP expansion and graduation rate increasesÑraises the city of Des Moines’ profile as an attractive place to live, says Mary Bontrager, executive vice president for workforce development and education at the Greater Des Moines Partnership, a regional economic development organization.

“Those offerings do help in the city’s ability to recruit top talent that has an interest in a very strong progressive school district,” Bontrager says. “They’re doing a wonderful job getting young adults prepared to enter the workplace [or into post-secondary work] out of high school.”

Two keys to success, Ahart says, are setting high academic expectationsÑparticularly for students who have been neglected by schoolsÑand allowing students to dig into subjects that excite them.

“We know there’s a long way to go in the educational track for some of these kids, and fear of failure is a reality,” Ahart says. “What we’ve demonstrated time and time again in this district is if we’re honest with these kids and we support them and push them at the same time, they rarely let us down.”

Editor’s note: Senior associate editor Matt Zalaznick visited Des Moines schools with the superintendent on a recent trip.