Aug 7, 2023 - Education

New Des Moines superintendent navigates politically tense climate

Des Moines Superintendent Ian Roberts. Photo: Linh Ta/Axios

New Des Moines Superintendent Ian Roberts is heading into a complex and politically tense environment as a new school year approaches.

Why it matters: Roberts takes the helm of one of the state's most racially and economically diverse districts ahead of the first full school year under the legislature's new law restricting classroom instruction.

State of play: The district educates more than 30,000 students and employs nearly 5,000 staff across 60 schools. Its diversity is what made the job appealing in the first place, Roberts tells Axios in a one-on-one interview.

  • But he faces a challenge in navigating the job against the backdrop of Senate File 496, a sweeping new law restricting some books and LGBTQ-related instruction that education advocates say could hurt marginalized students.

Catch up fast: Roberts started the job July 1 following a months-long search by the Des Moines school board.

  • He's the son of Guyanese immigrants and competed for Guyana in the 2000 summer Olympics in Sydney as a middle-distance track athlete.
  • He has focused the majority of his more than 20 years in education teaching and working as an administrator in urban schools, including in Baltimore, Washington D.C., the South Bronx and St. Louis.
  • Prior to moving to Des Moines this summer, Roberts was the superintendent of Millcreek Township in Pennsylvania for three years.

What they're saying: "I wanted to make sure that the students who are knocking on our doors, all of them, particularly those who have been historically marginalized, they can see representation in their district's leadership," he tells us about his decision to come to Des Moines.

Zoom in: Roberts says the district will follow the new law and work within the parameters of "what is legal and what is moral."

  • Republican lawmakers who supported the bill, which passed along party lines, say its intentions are to restore "parental rights" and make classroom instruction more transparent.
  • Meanwhile, education lobbying groups opposed it, arguing it could harm LGBTQ students and censor teachers.
  • DMPS interim superintendent Matt Smith previously warned the political tensions between urban districts and the legislature made Iowa less appealing to teacher recruits.

What's happening: SF 496 requires written parental permission if a student wants to go by a pronoun or name not assigned at birth.

  • It also requires teachers to notify parents if a student asks to go by a different name or pronoun.

Roberts says that while he expects teachers to follow the law, if a teacher violates it and follows a student's wishes, they will have his "full support."

Details: Another portion of the law requires schools to only offer books that are "age appropriate" and remove books from classrooms and libraries that contain "sex acts."

  • It also restricts materials, including classroom instruction, on gender identity and sexual orientation for K-6th grade students.

The intrigue: Roberts maintains that many banned books like "The Catcher in the Rye" and "Beloved" have benefited readers. Still, he says the district is auditing schools' book collections and not waiting for guidance from the state before removing materials.

  • His goal is to avoid violating the law, and points out that there are still many books available to students that address equity and diversity; he doesn't believe removing "one or two" will compromise student learning.

The big picture: Roberts likened the current situation to an African proverb: "When the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled."

  • When people in positions of power cannot find alignment, those that are hurt are "our children," he says.

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