DMPS needs to tell its
At a meeting early last month,
when candidates for the Des Moines
School Board were asked to stand
up and say the one thing that
they thought the school system
was doing well, three of them
passed. They thought, or at least
wanted to convey to those in attendance
that they thought the school system
was simply doing nothing right.
In a contentious battle for who
was to lead our schools, they
felt it was a smart play.
Truth be told, however, there
is quite a bit going right with
the DMPS system these days; and
now that the election cycle is
over and a new board is in place
and a new year is underway, it's
time to begin telling some of
those stories. The naysayers and
the interlopers and the litigious
society continue to tell their
stories, lambasting everyone and
everything that has to do with
the system. And sadly enough,
much of what they have to say
is right. Funds have been mismanaged.
Lies have been told. Racism does
seem to be bubbling beneath the
surface. There is incompetence
around too many corners.
But how about coming up for
How about - even just for a little
while - telling a few of the good
stories to show the kids and their
parents that a DMPS education
can be a pretty amazing thing?
Some pretty smart people not only
have enrolled their children in
the DMPS system but are also graduates
of it themselves. If it were as
bad as many say, wouldn't these
people be fleeing for the suburbs,
for other states?
The rigorous Central Campus
has been compared to top college
prep programs like Choate and
Exeter. The Teachers Program provides
kids the chance to be a student
teacher before heading off to
college. The World Language program
teaches German, Italian, Chinese
and Japanese, which are all together
not offered in their entirety
by any other district in the state.
And the Career and Technical program
gives kids an opportunity to think
- when it comes to an early career
choice - outside the box, letting
students study auto mechanics,
restaurant management and graphic
design. Sound like a good story
to tell? Just ask the kids from
the 29 other school districts
around the state who utilized
these programs last year.
Des Moines Public Schools had
23 National AP Scholars last year.
In six years, fourth-graders district
wide have gone from 57 percent
reading at grade level to 75 percent.
The Downtown School is a national
model and has been tabbed one
of the Top 10 schools in the country
by Working Mothers magazine. And
the DMPS district has three schools
that provide year-round education
and hopefully more heading in
Still, on the cover of Monday's
Des Moines Register, the headline
exclaimed: "Image battle
preoccupies city schools."
Why? Well, it's quite simple:
The people telling the story are
simply the wrong people to be
telling the story.
"The sky is not falling,"
says newly elected DMPS School
Board President Phil Roeder. "We
have some major challenges (and
Roeder took 30 minutes explaining
them all)... However, overall
I'm encouraged about the solid
record of economic success in
So why not tell those stories?
Roeder tells me that's a very
Currently, it seems that only
the bad news and the missteps
are being reported: Eric Witherspoon
flirting with Indianapolis. Schools
closing. The bad blood on the
board, and a nasty election. And,
as usual, the squeaky wheels are
getting the grease.
Roeder says he couldn't agree
more, but goes one step further.
"The frequent change in
leadership and staff at the Register
has hurt the paper's institutional
memory and left it with people
who have little or no first-hand
knowledge of our public schools."
And while Roeder says blaming
the media is usually a copout,
the lack of knowledge on Locust
Street is, at the very least,
partly culpable for the current
attitude in the community.
So what's he going to do about
it? He's the president. There
are things the district is doing
extremely well. The news isn't
all bad. And the board, while
primarily in place to pass a yearly
budget, should be weighing in
rather than constantly dodging
bullets. Sure, you can't have
Eric Witherspoon out in front,
telling the stories. But can you
afford to have Lynn Campbell,
Nan Stillians and John Narcisse
being the only ones telling them
When I ask Roeder if the school
district can afford to tell its
own story, he tells me it can't
afford not to. He says the district
and the board need to take a lesson
in Marketing 101 and develop a
plan to communicate with the public
- something it has been doing
an extremely poor job of.
"My kids are too important
for me to stay in Des Moines another
day if I didn't believe they were
getting a great education,"
To me, it's a sentiment that
needs to be beaten into the public
consciousness. Again, there is
so much to be disheartened over,
and the tales of woe will always
get more run than the 23 National
AP Scholars. But the dark cloud
that has been storming on our
school system for the past number
of years has always had at least
a smidgen of a silver lining.
I mean, there are at least a few
things being done well. Just ask
those three candidates who each
felt nothing was going right:
All three of them lost. CV
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