Demographics:

Iowa City Community School District serves more than 14,000 students across 30 schools

Biggest challenge:

While it’s known that participating in extracurricular activities benefits students’ academic, social, and emotional development, there are obstacles that prevent participation in—and even discovery of—extracurriculars, especially for low-income and minority students.

There are many after-school and summer programs available for students in the Iowa City area, but hurdles such as cost, awareness, language/cultural barriers and transportation were interfering with participation. Students were missing out on the enriching diversity of ideas and social interaction that come with those opportunities.

Solutions:

To assist low-income students, we established a Community Education Fund that provides approximately $55,000 each year to support the costs associated with after-school and summer programs. These scholarships provide students funds for transportation and participation fees. Parent organizations, booster clubs, and donations also help with these costs.

Additionally, we have Student & Family advocates who support families with a special focus on those who are from another country (approximately 7 percent of district students are immigrants). These advocates assist families with navigating the culture of American schools by helping them understand what extracurricular opportunities are available and directing them to sources of funding inside and outside of the district.

We also doubled down on our communication about programming. The primary tool we deployed is a service called Peachjar, which is a cloud-based platform that distributes important updates and information about community resources to parents in the form of digital flyers. We turned to this tool after a survey of parents showed us that 95 percent of our parents had access to web-based media through smartphones or computers in their homes.

Awareness of extracurriculars was lacking when we previously printed flyers and sent them home in students’ backpacks because the information rarely made its way to parents. Similarly, when we posted information on our websites, parents weren’t proactive about going online and searching for it. Digital flyers streamlined information-sharing from start to finish so it was easier for everyone to discover enrichment opportunities.

We also use Peachjar’s ADA feature to ensure that all content is WCAG compliant and its multiple-page flyer capability to ensure content is communicated in multiple languages to accommodate our multicultural school populations. In home languages, parents can better understand exactly what a program is about and make a clear choice when deciding to sign up their student.

Lessons learned:

  • There is great value for students in using school technology that is not directly applied in the classroom.
  • As the school community changes in diversity, size and interest, it’s critical to actively strive for inclusive and proactive communication.
  • Student diversity does not equal opportunity diversity. It’s on districts to explore, identify and ultimately connect students to new people, programs and ideas beyond their school walls.

Next steps:

  • Continue sharing extracurricular opportunities in an accessible format to engage as many students and families as possible.
  • Ensure that there is adequate access to programming as our student population evolves over the years.
  • Listen to what students and families want to be doing outside of school and actively seek to connect them with those opportunities.

About the Author:

Stephen Murley is Superintendent of Schools in the Iowa City Community School District.


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