A Long Way from Excellence

Pleasant Valley touts excellence in its motto, but minority students feel its anything but.
Pleasant Valley touts excellence in its motto, but minority students feel it’s anything but.
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“Committed to Excellence.”

From a student’s first step inside of one of Pleasant Valley Community School District’s eight campuses to their final walk along the stage of the Vibrant Arena on graduation day, they hear this motto repeated almost daily.

In many ways, it couldn’t be truer. Institution-profiling database Niche ranks PVCSD as the number 1 school district in the state of Iowa, with an overall score of A+. The national Department of Education recognized Pleasant Valley High School as a Blue Ribbon School in 2021, which was commemorated with a controversial visit from Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds.

However, while PV can boast high test scores and rigorous academic standards, it has been regularly criticized for its perceived inability to foster equity throughout the district.

Senior Rhema Saddler has experienced being marginalized within the walls of PV. “During my time at PV, I’ve encountered numerous instances of racism coming from students and staff. I’ve been made to feel uncomfortable in a classroom and like I wasn’t smart enough because of my skin. I’ve reported most of these encounters to administration, but nothing has ever been done,” Saddler said.

I’ve been made to feel uncomfortable in a classroom and like I wasn’t smart enough because of my skin.

— Rhema Saddler

As a result of this criticism, administration has been all but forced to act, reiterating their intolerance for racism and bigotry and working with student organizations like A Positive Place to foster positive social change.

In January 2022, however, the school district took a proactive measure, contracting Dr. LaDrina Wilson of Iman Consulting to perform the Student Outcomes Audit, consisting of seven focus groups and surveys to determine the cultural climate of PV.

When Superintendent Brian Strusz presented this audit to the school board on Jan 10, 2022, he discussed its origins as part of the district’s 5-year improvement plan. 

“The district has engaged [Wilson] to complete a student outcome audit to provide for us an independent view of our district’s operations and offerings,” the Jan. 10 school board meeting minutes read. “She will present to administrators and the Board of Education an analysis of information collected and will assist the district in assembling a District Inclusive Education Advisory Board consisting of students, staff, administrators, parents and other community members.”

In the spring of 2022, Wilson visited the high school several times to conduct her research into the inclusivity of Pleasant Valley High School. Senior Lexi Pelzer was among the students selected to participate in this equity analysis.

“I was part of one of Dr. Wilson’s focus groups, and she asked us questions about what our experiences were with student and staff behavior, as well as how we felt about the response of administration to social altercations. Generally, the responses showed that minorities don’t feel very safe at PV, and we hoped that this audit would expose that and work to make PV a more positive place,” Pelzer explained.

But over a year has elapsed from the initial contraction of Iman Consulting and no update has been publicly made. Many students and staff have been pressing the district for further information. Ann Berger, an English and Psychology teacher at PVHS, is just one of the educators who has been consistently requesting additional information regarding the audit results since the beginning of the school year.

“The health and well-being of any system is dependent on honest discourse and willingness to disclose the truth, even if it’s ugly and challenging,” Berger discussed. “I’m extremely concerned with the physical and psychological safety of students and faculty in the building, and within our greater community. We can’t address these issues unless we’re willing to admit that they exist.”

In December, The Spartan Shield contacted Wilson to get a better understanding of the results of the audit. In conversation, Wilson noted that the results were near completion and were under review by the school to edit out information that does not fit with the context of the school district. She explained that the school district is at liberty to disclose any preliminary information.

However, Mike Zimmer, Director of Secondary Education at PVCSD, was only willing to share the audit’s initial proposal, which outlined a previous audit that was not made public. It also was unsuccessful and incomplete. 

“Pleasant Valley High School has begun a Student Outcomes audit process with the support of a third party. This [previous] audit is incomplete, but has elements that could be refined or maintained as part of the [new] comprehensive student outcomes audit,” the proposal reads. 

In February 2023, The Spartan Shield submitted formal requests for information regarding the audit, including Wilson’s contract, which is defined as a public document by Iowa Code Sec. 22, along with the preliminary results of the audit.

In accordance with the timeframe legally stipulated by Iowa Code Sec. 22, Strusz provided the contract, but explained that the results were the intellectual property of Iman Consulting and therefore were not public documents. He retained that, should Wilson be willing, she has full authoritative right to share these preliminary findings.

Pelzer’s own curiosity led her to contact Wilson herself, requesting any preliminary information that she was willing to provide. Pelzer said that Wilson seemed more than willing to share any information with the approval of the school. However, less than an hour later, Wilson called Pelzer back to inform her that, after talking to Strusz, she felt uncomfortable with sharing the results of the audit.

At the time of publication, no further information has been shared.

 

Editorial

The process of writing this article has spanned nearly four months of constant research, numerous emails and endless phone calls. From the beginning, very few individuals were willing to share information regarding the state of the audit, and what had been shared often contradicted other accounts. 

It started with many phone calls and emails to Dr. LaDrina Wilson: first to Iman Consulting’s office, then to Wilson’s personal email and finally to Iman Consulting’s message service. When I finally got in touch with her, I was told to search elsewhere and talk to administration.

So I did. I spoke with Associate Principal Jason Jones, Principal Darren Erikson and Director of Secondary Education Mike Zimmer, who asserted that the audit results were not available. When we requested Wilson’s contract, we were presented with a proposal. When we asserted what we needed, we were ignored.

It wasn’t until Mike Hiestand, a law professional with the Student Press Legal Center, got involved that we were taken seriously. Up to this point, teachers like Ann Berger and Robyn Samuelson had constantly asked about the status of this audit. However, it seemed that the administration was only willing to share information when presented with Iowa’s code.

What can be made of this? Why is the district so adamant that no results be released?

The stark contrast between Wilson’s initial willingness to share the audit results and the opaqueness of the district when questioned, in addition to Wilson’s comment about the district’s process of editing for context, does not promote the best image of the school, but perhaps this suspicion paints a better picture than the audit results might.

The audit is meant to hold the school district accountable for its inaction on matters of social justice, but can results that have gone through months of editing provide the community with a true snapshot of the school’s issues?

Wishful thinking isn’t going to appease the marginalized students of PV. The only way to eliminate PV’s problem with bigotry is to admit that there is a problem in the first place.

For examples of a successful student outcomes audit, look no further than West Des Moines School District and Valley High School. Valley conducted a similar audit with Iowa State University in 2016. Since that audit, which found moving statistics regarding the academic and behavioral standings of minority students, West Des Moines School District has made a concerted effort to improve the cultural climate of their own high school.

David Maxwell, the principal of Valley High School, discussed the procedures and effects of WDMSD’s equity audit. “[Iowa State University’s audit] looked at our enrollment data, disciplinary numbers, and demographics of students in AP Classes to determine if there were any biases in standard district procedure. They found a number of inequitable practices that created a toxic learning environment for students of color… That’s when the work began.”

Maxwell continued, “We started our equity journey and had to ask ourselves tough questions. Were counselors scheduling students of color into more remedial classes? Were tests and exams inadvertently biased against students of color? We took a deep dive into our handbook and building practices to look for barriers that prevent all students from being comfortable.”

We took a deep dive into our handbook and building practices to look for barriers that prevent all students from being comfortable.

— David Maxwell

Valley High School proves that an effective audit is not only possible, but absolutely necessary in making PV a safe space for underserved students.

Until Pleasant Valley gives total effort in suppressing prejudice on a district level, it will never truly be committed to excellence.

Contributions: Lexi Pelzer



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  • R

    Rhema SaddlerApr 21, 2023 at 2:24 pm

    This is an amazing article that shows what people really go through in this school system! I like how you dug deep and were persistent in getting needed evidence and information.

    Reply
  • J

    Jalen MilesApr 17, 2023 at 1:32 pm

    An amazing article that talks about people’s experience within the Pleasant Valley community the individual injustices that go on in people’s lives. This is a great way to get people’s voices heard to the public and community.

    Reply
  • L

    Leila AssadiApr 4, 2023 at 8:52 pm

    A wonderful article Tommy! I am so proud that you wrote this.

    Reply