Why Des Moines Can Be a Model for Urban Schools

A majority of students are minorities. Poverty rates are going up. Refugees speak 100 different languages and dialects. And despite all this, the school district is seeing gains.

DES MOINES, Iowa—Parju Rai finishes her quiz on integers with ease, putting her pencil down as Amelia Mieth, an eighth-grade teacher, calls time. Rai and her family arrived in the United States just two months ago from a refugee camp in eastern Nepal. But you wouldn't know it from her comfort level in the class. She doesn't speak much English, but she understands the universal language of math. "She knows exactly what she's doing," Mieth says in her Amos Hiatt Middle School classroom on the east side of town.

But Rai doesn't stand out among her peers. Of the 28 students in her math class, only four are white. The others are a mix of Asian refugees, Latino immigrants, and African-Americans. It's a representative sample of a classroom in Iowa's capital city.

The majority of the 33,000 students in the Des Moines public schools are minorities, and they have been for the last several years. Whites make up only 45 percent of classrooms here, and the rest includes a growing number of Latinos (24 percent) and Asians (7 percent), and a steady number of African Americans (18 percent). The student population is the result of demographic trends that have reshaped Des Moines over the past couple of decades—as white families moved to the suburbs, Iowa's open-door refugee policy and plentiful unskilled labor jobs made way for more ethnic newcomers.

It's clearly a diverse student body, but it's also a disadvantaged one. Two constant challenges facing the school district are poverty and English language skills. Even so, the district is experiencing some surprising academic successes that could make it a national model for other urban districts.

Superintendent Tom Ahart doesn't sugarcoat the obstacles: "We really have an uphill battle." While just 33 percent of students qualified for free or reduced meals in 1993, that number is up to 73 percent today. A majority of schools, in fact, give all students free breakfast and lunch. And poverty is not a problem that's going away—the rate is even higher for the kindergarten cohort, and enrollment continues to rise. Urban-core poverty in Des Moines is comparable to Detroit or Philadelphia, Ahart contends.

Meanwhile, refugees from all over the world continue to arrive in the public-school system here, bringing with them more than 100 different languages and dialects. The language barrier at home can be quite acute. According to Urban Institute data from 2011, Iowa ranks fifth for the share of children of immigrants who live in homes that are "linguistically isolated," meaning that there is virtually no one older than 14 in the household who speaks English well. This makes it difficult for parents to communicate with school officials and also limits their ability to help with their child's classwork.

But despite these challenges, Des Moines public schools seem to be closing the achievement gap across most levels. Test scores and graduation rates are improving. Since 2009, the four-year graduation rate has risen nearly 7 percentage points to just over 79 percent. The graduation rate for black students at the comprehensive high schools (not including the special-education and alternative schools) is just 5 percentage points lower than that for white students, at 81 percent. The dropout rate for Des Moines high school students has also declined since 2009. The district saw gains in statewide proficiency test scores at every grade level in math and reading except in 11th grade reading. And African-American students saw the largest increase in reading and math scores for grades three through five.

How does this demographically disadvantaged school district continue to improve?

Part of it has to do with the culture. Take North High School, which was at the bottom for Iowa in all test scores five years ago, hovering around 40 percent across all levels. It sits in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Des Moines, where many students spend nights working late or essentially parenting their younger siblings. Teachers, knowing this, excused students from academic obligations. North was an afterthought, and the school looked like it, too, with no air-conditioning and rundown classrooms.

Then the school got a new administration, new expectations, and new digs. The district cleaned house and installed different administrators, who immediately addressed what they saw as a systematic failure in the relationship between students and teachers. "We understand these hardships," explains Michael Vukovich, the current principal, "but in order to break these cycles of poverty in our community, we have to educate our kids and get them to college and get them degrees."

"You can't do that by letting them sleep in class," says Vukovich. "You can't do that by giving them packets of work instead of teaching material. We can't control some of the things that these kids endure when they leave our building. But when they're in, we can hold them to these expectations."

For teachers, it meant coaching so they could improve. For the building, it meant $14 million in renovations, installing air-conditioning and modernizing. They also used new grants to provide all students with their own laptop—today, students are assigned individual iPads. Add to that a new dress code for students and teachers, the elimination of in-school suspensions and detentions, and a strengthened effort to quickly clear the hallways between classes, and the school's transformation was underway.

Last year, the school hit 58.3 percent proficiency in reading—almost a 20-point increase. Five years ago, there was one Advanced Placement class with 11 students. Now, there are 12 with 600 total enrollments. North High School started offering AP Spanish to students for the first time last year. Eight students chose to the take the test, and all eight passed and earned college credit.

But Des Moines can't address all of its challenges without putting heavy resources into its growing English Language Leaners program. Since the fall of Saigon in 1975, refugees have flocked to Iowa. But the situation is different now then it was 40 years ago, says Vinh Nguyen, one of those refugees from Vietnam, and the current ELL program coordinator for the district.

In the mid-1970s, there were just 300 students in the ELL program, speaking Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, Hmong, and Tai Dam. Today, the program serves 6,100 students (20 percent of all Des Moines public-school students), who speak more than 100 languages and dialects. That number grew rapidly just in the past decade, as there were just 26 languages in 2001. Back in the 1970s, the federal and state governments provided ample resources for refugees. That assistance is scant today. Back then, students came to the U.S. knowing how to read and write in their native language. Many students today come illiterate in their native language.

"Every time we have a new population, I sit back and learn about that population and figure out ways to work with them and learn about their community," says Nguyen, who came to the U.S. in 1983. "As soon as I get a good hold of it, a new population comes in. My job is never done."

At its most basic level, ensuring that these students understand English starts with ELL teachers like Margaret Peterson, who works at Greenwood Elementary School. Some of her students have a good foundation of literacy. Some do not. Some quickly learn to speak a new language. Others need more time. But she has to teach all of them together, despite their backgrounds.

"Everyone always asks, 'Do you speak all of those languages?' And my answer is always, 'How did you teach your own children when they started?' " she says. "For a teacher to sit and talk about vowel sounds to someone from Somalia makes absolutely no sense to them. You have to simplify everything."

The number of ELL students will continue to rise; 26 percent of kindergartens are in the program. And these students, too, have to take the statewide standardized tests like everyone else, even though the students are not yet fully proficient when they exit the program. Despite this, 37 percent of ELL students were proficient in reading in last year's statewide exams, a jump of 19 percentage points from the year before. And it takes an effort from teachers outside of the ELL program (Mieth, a math teacher, decorates her classrooms with vocabulary words and requires written-out answers on homework.)

School officials argue that legislation stands in their way of making truly substantial progress. Last year, 40 Des Moines schools were deemed "in need of assistance" by federal government standards. At the state level, they're advocating for a change in the way resources are allocated to school districts. At the federal level, they see No Child Left Behind and subsequent tests as archaic and unable to measure progress. But that doesn't mean Ahart is not pleased with his district's progress.

"Despite some real state policy issues that get in the way of us doing the best job that we could, you can get the job done if you really believe the kids are capable," Ahart says. "As simple and Pollyanna-ish as that sounds, it's really the fundamental thing we need to remember. Kids are capable. We need to hold the bar high, and not sell any of the population short."

Urban schools across the country struggle with adversities such as poverty and basic language skills, but this school district in Central Iowa seems to be on the right path, despite growing diversity.

Stephanie Stamm contributed to this article