Johnston parent group conducts survey, hosts listening session, panel to improve school equity

Johnston parents working for equity and anti-racism will host events for students, parents and community members to be heard.

Key points: 

  • Johnston Parents for Equity & Anti-Racism is distributing a survey, developed with Race Forward, a national racial equity organization. The survey is open through Jan. 26. 
  • A listening session specific to Johnston schools will be held from 2 p.m.-4 p.m. on Jan. 14. Attendees will receive location details after registration.
  • A panel discussion, “Suspended: Systemic Oppression in our Schools” will be held from 6 p.m.-8 p.m. Jan. 26 at the Crown Point Community Center in Johnston. A traveling exhibit by the African American Museum of Iowa will be on display during the event. The panel is open to all school districts. 

A group of Johnston parents wants the district to focus on school equity and better serve marginalized students, but they’re not waiting for school officials or school board members to act — they’re leading the effort. 

JPEAR, which stands for Johnston Parents for Equity & Anti-Racism, is spearheading the collection of data and stories from students, parents and community members to fuel its work to improve the district. Organizers are working with Race Forward, a national equity organization. 

“We need to make sure that families and students can tell their stories and say what’s happening, who can feel like there’s a community who doesn’t dismiss that, who doesn’t downplay it and who doesn’t ignore it,” said Shalome Musigñac-Jordán, a Johnston mother of three and member of JPEAR. 

Shalome Musigñac-Jordán
Shalome Musigñac-Jordán, a Johnston mother of three and member of JPEAR. Photo courtesy Musigñac-Jordán. 

The group began in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and Johnston mothers saw racist comments surface from Johnston parents on social media. The group began organizing to advocate for policy changes. 

Musigñac-Jordán said parents have power. 

“And we need people to step into that power and collaborate together to do that,” she said.

The group has organized the following events in January: 

  • A survey with Race Forward’s HEAL, which stands for Honest Education Action & Leadership. The survey is open to parents in any Iowa school district through Jan. 26. 
  • A listening session specific to Johnston schools will be held from 2 p.m.-4 p.m., Jan. 14. The location will be emailed to registrants.
  • A panel discussion, “Suspended: Systemic Oppression in our Schools,” will be held from 6 p.m.-8 p.m. Jan. 26 at the Crown Point Community Center. A traveling exhibit by the African American Museum of Iowa will also be on display. The event is open to members of all school districts.

Johnston parent Lya Williams, a former school board candidate, said the district’s own data show some students of color are struggling but school officials continue to push back against conducting an equity audit based on race. 

“But all along you’ve had data telling me the exact thing that we know is happening  . . . to the kids we know who are getting left in the dust. Why are you still not doing anything?” Williams said. 

Lynn Meadows, director of communications for the Johnston school district, said the district has not conducted an equity audit. She said the board has met three times in work sessions on Oct. 17Nov. 14 and Nov. 21, to hear presentations and discuss “topics related to equity and surveys.”  

Several controversies have emerged in the Johnston school district in recent years:

Johnston has about 24,064 residents, according to census data. Of the Johnston residents, 81.7% are white, 5.9% are Black, 6.3% are Asian, 3.9% are Hispanic and 0.2% are American Indian and Alaska Native.

Crown Point Community Center in Johnston, Iowa.
Crown Point Community Center. Photo by Black Iowa News.

According to the Iowa Department of Education, Johnston’s student enrollment is about 7,129. 

  • 9.5% Black
  • 5.4% Multi-racial
  • 7.1% Hispanic
  • 8.2% Asian
  • 0.1% Native American
  • 69.7% White

Williams said it’s time for the district to act. More Black teachers are needed, and a support system needs to be developed for Black teachers once they’re hired, she said. 

Lya Williams
Johnston parent and JPEAR member Lya Williams, a former school board candidate. Photo courtesy of Williams.

According to Iowa’s 2022 Condition of Education Report, just 3% of teachers in Iowa are minorities. Teachers of color face pay disparities in the state, according to the report. The average salary of non-minority teachers was 5% higher than the average salary of minority teachers, the report stated. 

Black educators have said student performance increases when students have “same-race” teachers, and Williams wants that for her son. Williams said she wants the district to focus less on what it’s doing and “actually do what is right.”

Musigñac-Jordán, who described Johnston as “racist” and “elitist,” said she understands why teacher recruitment is difficult. 

“Why would you want to come work for a district that is trying to pull books because they talk about different students’ perspectives?” she said. “I would want us to be unequivocal about where we stand because right now we are straddling the line of saying, ‘Of course, we love equity. We love everybody,’ and we’re doing the exact opposite.” 

Survey

Johnston High School entrance.
Johnston High School. Photo by Black Iowa News.

The climate survey is open to students, parents, caregivers, educators and community members through Jan. 26. The results will become part of a national report by Race Forward, and organizers will also receive individual local district reports. Musigñac-Jordán said parents can use their local report to advocate for changes within their districts. 

Musigñac-Jordán said even before the partnership with Race Forward, Johnston parents wanted an equity audit. She said the district rejected the offer because of budget concerns. The district hired an equity director but he later resigned to work for Des Moines schools.

“Now they’re dragging their feet to rehire the position and dragging their feet to do the equity audit,” Musigñac-Jordán said.

Meadows, the district’s spokesperson, said the board viewed a presentation and discussed staffing at its Dec. 12 board meeting. She said funding “includes one potential use of district funds ($140,000) toward a district-wide equity director.” Staffing decisions for the 2023-24 school year are on the agenda for the Jan. 23 board meeting. 

Meanwhile, organizers are forging ahead with their own plans. 

“We’re moving into creating the things we want to see,” she said. “We no longer want to wait for the district to drag its feet.”

Panel

The panel discussion, “Suspended: Systemic Oppression in our Schools” will be held from 6 p.m.-8 p.m. Jan. 26 at the Crown Point Community Center in Johnston. A traveling exhibit by the African American Museum of Iowa will be on display during the event, which is open to members of any school district. 

Johnston school equity event flier

The 90-minute panel, which will examine the elements that make up the school-to-prison pipeline, will be moderated by a school board member, Musigñac-Jordán said. Participants are encouraged to join in the discussion and ask questions.  

Williams said the parent-led initiatives “are about the recognition” that the school system works for some, but not all.

Listening Session

The listening session is specific to Johnston schools and will be held from 2 p.m.-4 p.m. on Jan. 14. Attendees will receive location details after registration.

The session is necessary because not everyone in the district is being heard, organizers said. Williams said a parent whose child receives special education services doesn’t have access to the same level of support, for example, that Extended Learning Program students may have.  

“We keep focusing on our majority and making the system keep going that way,” she said. “But we’re not doing things that focus on the students who need the help.” 

Musigñac-Jordán said the district is aware of the inequities and is making a choice not to respond. That’s why the listening session is important, she said. 

“We’re going to create, in small ways, the spaces that we want to see within our city government within our school district,” said Musigñac-Jordán.

Ultimately, parents want to see meaningful changes but Musigñac-Jordán and Williams said the district has lost several staff due to leadership problems. The district needs to conduct the equity audit and hire a new diversity, equity and inclusion director, but Musigñac-Jordán said “three or more of our school board members” don’t think equity is an issue. 

“But regardless, we still need to feel safe,” she said. “We still need to be encouraged to speak our truth and speak from our experiences and not be discouraged . . .”

Musigñac-Jordán, who attended Race Forward’s national conference in Arizona for parent organizers, said she would love for the survey, listening session and panel discussion to result in the changes that students, alumni and parents want. But while she’s skeptical it will happen, she and other parents have no plans to give up. 

“Our communities still need to be heard and still need to have the opportunity to raise the issues that are affecting them,” she said.

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