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Reaching out: DEI efforts increase at ISU lab schools

 ISU Lab Schools Director Anthony Jones
Charlie Schlenker
Anthony Jones

There are increased efforts to build diversity in the student bodies at Illinois State University's two lab schools. That’s according to Lab Schools director Anthony Jones, who just finished his first year on the job.

Thomas Metcalf School and University High School have relatively low numbers of African Americans and Latinos compared with the general community, and above average numbers of Asian students. Jones said one way to boost diversity is better communication with potential students during the application period early in the year.

"To make sure we were getting information out to a broader audience, going to the west end of Bloomington and reaching out to those families when we look at the smaller population in terms of the students and families we were working with," said Jones. “In the past, there was a gentleman’s agreement that we would not pull more students from District 87.”

A heat map of where lab school students live shows most come from Unit 5, the district where the lab schools sit geographically. A smaller contingent is from District 87, and fewer still are from the fringes of the area that stretches south to LeRoy and nearly to Heyworth and west to the Stanford-based Olympia School District.

Jones said a particular tool to encourage a more diverse pool of applicants already was in place when he arrived.

“They did something called 'myth busters.' For instance, the reputation of the lab schools is that to be admitted into the lab schools, you had to be, a high functioning 4.0 student, all A's and top of your class. That is not necessarily the truth. Another myth buster is that the lab schools take tuition. We do not. Parents do pay fees. That is no different than any school district in our area,” said Jones.

exterior of U-High

Jones began an initiative to increase diversity over time by adding students. Metcalf school has begun a third kindergarten classroom and will add a new teacher every year as that cohort of children advances grade by grade. At the end of eight years, the new structure will be completely built out. He said the change has increased diversity even in the first year.

"From that group entering into Kindergarten, they saw a larger diversity in that kindergarten class," said Jones.

Property taxes do not support the lab schools and ISU runs them. The lab schools are funded by direct state appropriation and not though the evidence-based funding model that helps determine how much money per student goes to public school districts. That model includes additional funding under some metrics, such as average income and diversity and special needs students.

Jones said there is a case for increased lab school funding to pay for the additional teachers as diversity grows, based on the metrics the funding model incorporates.

Some parents have voiced concerns additional students at each grade level will change the chemistry of the lab schools and erode both small class sizes and a small school feel to the institution. Jones said that’s not the case. He said his unit has access to space in Fairchild Hall and the Rachel Cooper building that it does not yet use that can be allocated to the new classrooms.

Currently, the lab schools currently have just over 1,000 students — about 400 at Metcalf and 600 at U-High.

He said he is still working on changing admissions processes to facilitate a more diverse student body. At Metcalf, the admissions committee reviews applications blindly, without names. They are separated into piles by geography. At U-High, he said the committee reads through each application, although without names.

“They're looking at the whole student, what are things they can bring to U-High to be able to fit into the culture and climate? One or two examples — a conversation I saw dealt with how to continue to build up our program for cheer. Maybe we just had a large group of seniors graduate from our cheer program, and we don't want to lose that program. So, we look for students who may have that interest. Do we have students who are interested in going into theater or band,” said Jones.

A perception of the lab schools is that because it's a school of choice, it tilts toward higher economic bracket families that can work against goals to increase diversity.

“One of the things I've constantly heard, not only from staff and teachers, but also from parents and community members is the impact of not having transportation. I know that is a barrier, but I also know there are other areas we can look at to help support students who may need transportation to the lab schools. I don't think that is a number one barrier,” said Jones.

If parents want to provide the best education for their students, they find ways to get their students to those places, he added.

“We have to be more intentional about how we use resources in the community. And as I get more familiar with Bloomington-Normal, I'll be able to tap in those resources a little bit better,” said Jones.

As with many schools and districts, there have been periodic issues of bullying, racism, and macro or microaggressions at the lab schools, particularly U-High. One recent example in the last several years is a Confederate battle flag display on a vehicle.

Principal Andrea Markert has outlined steps taken and plans made to address those issues. Jones, who before coming to central Illinois coordinated DEI efforts at schools in Ames, Iowa, said those moves at U-High, including restorative circles and restorative practices are a "great start," but with any equity, diversity inclusion efforts, there needs to be continual growth and continual learning.

“Basically, how do we create a space where we can listen to each other's stories, and how do we create a space of safety," said Jones. "We have to be able to have open conversations and debate to receive information that can help us create a better climate and culture for our students.”

Another addition at the high school Jones praised is a Diversity Committee with parents.

“They've opened up more opportunities for more diverse group of parents to be a part of that process of improving the culture and climate,” said Jones.

There also are invitations to consultants and outside speakers, but Jones cautioned those can only go so far.

“That's from the outside in. I believe the better strategy is to help our teachers to understand their own culture, to be able to increase their own awareness about their experiences, going through the educational system, looking at their own practices, and then reflecting on those practices, and then seeing the areas that they need to improve,” said Jones. “One of the things that I would definitely plan on implementing is being able to provide ownership of the learning.”

He said the school also must tap into community resources.

“I know the NAACP has done wonderful work and they definitely have been a support. They have said, whatever you need as a lab school for us to come in and be able to support you, we’re there,” said Jones.

One of the things voiced by students of color over a period of years is when they encounter something adverse, they don't feel they have a place to go to report it because there aren't that many staff or teachers of color. Jones said that is a conversation he is having with ISU's Human Resources Department.

“Working with Human Resources to be able to have representatives on our hiring committee from the beginning stages; even when we create a job description, where we share information, making sure we are posting positions on different websites and organizations, that we're intentionally going into those areas that have support around diverse teachers and diverse administrators,” said Jones.

He also wants to increase diversity in the portion of the student population that has disabilities, or a need for individual education plans, or IEPs. He said that will not only serve the students, but the College of Education that has a lauded and notable program for students who want to become special education teachers.

Lab schools as a concept have become increasingly rare in the U.S. ISU has kept its model a healthy entity far longer than most universities. Jones said the unit has a vital place in the College of Education — not only serving as experience and observation for budding teachers, but in facilitating best practices in education that can be offered to the national profession.

After his first year on the job, Jones said the state of the lab schools is good, with a 98% graduation rate, healthy numbers of students taking Advanced Placement coursework and exams, success in co-curricular activities, and accomplished sports teams.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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