Back to the classroom Mottet Leadership Institute grads want to help schools tackle disproportionality

Lindsay Steele
Members of the Mottet Leadership Institute Education Task Force discuss disproportionality during a meeting July 1 at Friends of MLK in Davenport.

Mottet Leadership Institute grads want to help schools tackle disproportionality

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

Graduates from the Mottet Leadership Institute are taking a class project outside of the training room to tackle an ongoing issue in the community. They hope to assist the Davenport Community School district in addressing disproportionate discipline rates for black students.

The Mottet Institute began in 2017 to carry on the legacy of Msgr. Marvin Mottet, a diocesan priest who believed that action on behalf of social justice was a necessary part of Christian life. Each class is instructed to choose a community issue and develop a mock plan to address it.


Student Nancy Stone, a member of Our Lady of Victory Parish in Davenport, semi-retired university professor and former special education teacher, suggested the discipline disproportionality issue in the Davenport public schools. Her class, whose members graduated this past spring, agreed to make that issue the focus of the project.

They were concerned about the school district being cited in April 2018 for disproportionality. The Iowa Department of Education found that a disproportionate number of black students had been flagged for special education services. A higher number of black and special education students also received certain types of disciplinary action, including suspension, seclusion and restraint. According to the state education department’s equity report for 2016-17, black students made up 18.9 percent of the population but received 62 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 42 percent of in-school suspensions. The Mottet Leadership Institute (MLI) group chose to focus on the discipline aspect.

As the class prepared for graduation, a group of about eight, including Ryan Saddler, a mentor and 2018 graduate of MLI, decided to take their efforts outside of the classroom. They invited community members, administrators and school board members to have a conversation about the issue and have since continued to work on building relationships.

The MLI group hopes to become an ally in the process of creating change. The last thing they want to do is point fingers, said Saddler, director of the accessibility resource center and of diversity at St. Ambrose University in Davenport. “We would like to be a partner in this game … we want to (help) move the needle to make an impact,” he said. “I know for change to happen and to be sustained over time that the change needs to be made at an institutional, systemic level.”

Leslie Kilgannon, the MLI coordinator, said disproportionality is not unique to Davenport. It is a multifaceted issue with a variety of potential causes including home life, poverty, teacher unfamiliarity with the cultures of students, inherent racial bias, and staff diversity, members of the action group said.

Stone, who studied race in education for her doctoral dissertation, said, “It’s not just a school problem but a community problem.” The group would like to help form a community advisory committee, with community members, teachers, police and other concerned citizens, so their voices can be heard.

Over the past few months, the group has spoken at a board meeting and had conversations with administrators “to establish a working relationship, learn about what Davenport schools have done to create change and what still needs to be done,” Saddler said. “Personally, I believe that we have the people and resources in the community to eliminate the disproportionality problem that we see in our Davenport Community Schools.”

Kilgannon hopes the group continues to engage, take risks and be brave. “I saw a lot of personal growth and development (during MLI training). They really grew as leaders and I hope they continue to stretch themselves and continue to grow into more powerful leaders. Our community needs them.”

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