School of Education associate professors Gale Seiler and Julio Cammarota (center) meet weekly with Ames High School students of color to share their experiences through research. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Sparking conversations and awareness to bring about change

Iowa State University faculty members are working with Ames students, teachers, and administrators to help the school district address academic achievement gaps and other racial disparities — creating a more inclusive environment through research, conversations, training, and awareness.

“We know it’s not just in Ames, but students of color — particularly African-American and Latinos/Latinas — have racialized experiences,” said Gale Seiler, an associate professor in the School of Education. “It happens everywhere; it happens in their daily lives. The goal is to bring about change.”

One of the efforts involves students of color sharing their experiences. The project aims to help the youth feel empowered — to feel like they have a voice and can bring significant changes in the school.

The effort led by Seiler and School of Education associate professor Julio Cammarota uses the youth participatory action research (YPAR) approach. Faculty members started working with a group of middle schoolers in January, and are continuing conversations with some of those same students this fall at Ames High School.

“The focus of the project is to have them document through research their experiences going to a predominantly white school,” Cammarota said. “If we’re going to see any significant changes in schools, particularly changes that will help students of color, I think they need to be at the table. They need to have their voices be heard.”

The Iowa School Report Card released in January by the Iowa Department of Education showed proficiency gaps in math and literacy among black and Hispanic students, compared to their white classmates at each of Ames’ seven K-12 schools. A nonpartisan group of concerned citizens called the Ames Youth and School Action Team (AYSAT) says gaps also include racial disparities in advanced course and track enrollment, graduation rates, and discipline rates.

“Our African-American students are not performing at the same rate as our white students and we want to know why,” said associate superintendent Mandy Ross. “The Ames Community School District is committed to closing the gap between student groups. We appreciate the support of the community and involvement with a variety of Iowa State University faculty and staff in making this happen.”

Students share their voices through research

Iowa State researchers bring expertise in social justice, as well as experience in how to do research — to gather data, interview, and analyze.

Cammarota’s research examines how a social justice approach to education can improve the academic experiences of marginalized youth. Seiler’s research documents the experiences of students from groups often unsuccessful in school. She works to prepare teachers to teach in ways that create entry points for youth from nondominant groups.

The work with Ames students is funded with a grant called “Student Voices for School Change,” from the University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Educational Transformation.

“We are hoping that what the youth research and what the youth say and recommend will lead to some type of changes — at least create an open forum or open space where students and youth can talk about these issues on a wider scale,” Cammarota said. “How do we create a climate that is about fairness and justice and equity, that is anti-racist?”

As middle schoolers, the students made observations of their school, wrote up their observations, held focus groups, and conducted interviews with other students. They concluded that there were few ways for them to deal with discrimination or racism, and few consequences or accountability for those who discriminate or use a racial slur.

The students presented their initial findings at three events last spring: at a conference of the Iowa Association of Alternative Education, at a workshop for middle school teachers, and at a conference of current and aspiring educators of color at Metro State University in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

This semester, five of the students continue to participate in the project as ninth graders, joined by about 11 of their high school peers. They meet weekly. Ames High School Principal Spence Evans has been supportive of the effort and has asked for periodic updates on the group’s work.

“Drs. Seiler and Cammarota began YPAR at Ames Middle School last year as part of an action research project that was approved by the district in an effort to give students of color a voice in their school,” said Ross, who is also an Iowa State alumna. “As part of the District Research Review Committee, I saw the merits of providing this opportunity to our students. This year, YPAR has moved to Ames High, allowing last year’s eighth graders to continue the work they started with Gale and Julio.”

Providing professional development

Iowa State University is also assisting Ames school district leaders with training.  

School of Education assistant professor Daniel Spikes and associate professor Katy Swalwell in August began providing professional development to Ames school administrators, school board members, principals, and instructional coaches to create a common understanding around cultural competency and "critical consciousness.”

The training is expected to last for three years and will include listening sessions with the public. School of Education graduate students will conduct interviews and gather data. In the second year of the program, professional development will be provided to classroom teachers.

“This work, which starts with administrators and school board members, ensures that we understand implicit bias, recognize how it plays out in institutions like public education, and work to correct it through policy, instructional strategies, and materials,” Ross said.

Spikes and Swalwell have prior experience assisting school districts and other government agencies across Iowa with challenges involving race. In 2015 and 2016, for example, the two faculty members served on a team that provided an “equity audit” to Valley High School in West Des Moines, after the school experienced fights along racial lines.   

“A number of our staff have taken classes from Dr. Spikes, which resulted in conversations among our staff around cultural competency,” Ross said. “As we learned more, we recognized that we need to have a systemic approach to this work. Drs. Spikes and Swalwell provided an avenue to helping us.”

Broader effort in the district

Activities led by Iowa State University faculty members are part of a broader effort by the Ames school district to address academic achievement gaps and other racial disparities.

The Ames school board in August approved a goal recommended by the district’s School Improvement Advisory Committee to boost black student performance and close achievement gaps in math, reading, and science. The district also has strategies to help struggling students including “plus periods” and extra instructional time.

Ross said she hopes the district will identify barriers that negatively impact learning for students of color, so it can provide all students with opportunities to reach their full potential.

“The academic disparity gap is not unique to the Ames community, but is seen throughout the United States,” Ross said. “What is unique to Ames is that these are our students who are not performing in the classroom at high levels, and we want to find the reasons for this. We are fortunate to have Iowa State University in our backyard because of the expertise that they offer, not only to the school district, but to the community as a whole. We’ve had a great relationship working with Iowa State University and this is just another example of that.”

Iowa State faculty members including Seiler and Angela Shaw, a microbiologist and associate professor in food science and human nutrition, and members of the Ames Youth and School Action Team have also dedicated some of their free time to bring students and teachers of color together to talk, speak before the Ames school board, and advocate for change.

“I’m not just an academic doing research,” Seiler said. “I do want to be an agent of change.”