'Going backwards is not an option': Ames calls for continued commitments to educational equity

Phillip Sitter
Ames Tribune

There was no discussion Monday night by the Ames school board on the process to replace Superintendent Jenny Risner, but speakers from the community made clear their desire that the district remain committed to the diversity, equity and inclusion work she led. 

Ames Community School District's Board of Education on May 28 accepted Risner's resignation 6-1, with board director Monic Behnken voting against.

Risner's last day on the job as Ames' superintendent is June 30.

She was hired in 2018, and intends to pursue "other professional opportunities," according to a joint statement issued by her and the board.

As the search for a new superintendent begins, Ames staff, parents and activists — sometimes being all three at once — and the president of Ames NAACP told the school board Monday that they want assurances that the end of Risner's tenure will not be the end of the district's work to hire and retain diverse staff, have curriculum that's relevant to all students' cultures, and address disparities in educational achievement, how students are disciplined and how school resource officers are used.

Risner's tenure and her resignation:Ames Community School District superintendent Jenny Risner resigns

'Going backwards is not an option'

Ames NAACP President Edna Clinton said Risner's resignation makes it appear that though the district can talk about difficult issues such as those, "we have not shown intentions of following through with long-term, achievable solutions."

Clinton said there are and have been real efforts made, but momentum needs to be regained after Risner's departure, and "Going backwards is not an option."

Clinton told the school board members, "You agreed that all students going through our school system will get the best of the best. Our students deserve nothing less than your collective effort to be sure that they receive an education that affords them their full potential of personal and educational achievement.”

The Ames Community School District.

Some Ames school staff said the news of Risner's resignation left them feeling insecure of whether the district has their back.

Ames Middle School Principal Yonas Michael said he came to the district because of Risner, and he praised her personal and professional leadership.

Michael said he's encountered overt and covert racism on the job — parents emailing him to tell him he's worthless for promoting equity, or threatening lawsuits or to go after his license.

He said he's left wondering if he still has the support he felt under Risner, and said a lot of healing and repair of trust needs to happen.

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'This all just feels like a huge mistake'

Activists with the Ames Youth and Schools Action Team and the Anti-Racism Collaborative of Ames also urged the school board to continue to make equity work a priority, and a priority of the next superintendent.

Steph Schares, speaking on behalf of AYSAT, said whatever the specific reasons for Risner's resignation, “the resignation of Superintendent Risner now makes ACSD appear to be an anti-equity district and makes you appear to be an anti-equity board."

Genya Coffey, speaking as an Ames Middle School teacher, a parent and member of AYSAT and ARC of Ames, said, “I just can’t fathom how this board and this superintendent could not find a way to work together” to have a unified voice for equity. “This all just feels like a huge mistake."

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Under Risner, the Ames district created the administrative position of director of equity and hired Anthony Jones as the first person in that position. 

The district also this school year had a Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action, an effort to support Black students — including Black LGBT students — and educate other students, which drew a lot of attention, both in favor and against.

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To whatever extent the backlash to the Week of Action played a role in Risner's decision to leave and the board's decision to accept her resignation, Amy Rutenberg — a parent and member of ARC of Ames — said “Centering equity this year was and is the right thing to do."

All eight public comment speakers to the board Monday night who told them to continue to prioritize equity got applause, whether in the room or online.

Phillip Sitter covers education for the Ames Tribune, including Iowa State University and PreK-12 schools in Ames and elsewhere in Story County. Phillip can be reached via email at psitter@gannett.com. He is on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.