DMPS Reflects on Progress Since Hiring First Black Teacher in Iowa 75 Years Ago

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DES MOINES, Iowa– Seventy-five years ago Des Moines Public Schools hired Harriet Curley, the first Black teacher in Iowa at Perkins Elementary. Now, the district is reflecting on how far it has come since then and its plans on building a more inclusive future. 

“When we say as a district that we are striving to become the model for urban education, we have to look at how all of these aspects are interacting with each other,” DMPS Human Resources Manager, Charles Mercer said. “We know the demographics of Des Moines are obviously changing, our school district demographics are obviously changing. So that means our professional demographics also need to change.” 

According to Mercer, out of Des Moines Public Schools’ 4,000 staff members, around 400 are Black.

Mercer said the district has conducted a few town halls with staff and community members to understand why DMPS isn’t seeing more candidates of color.

Officials found Black educators leveling out of their positions and not finding advanced roles in the district.

To pull from a more diverse crowd, DMPS has started expanding its reach when looking for teachers, by participating in national job fairs and making connections with universities around the country.

Harriet Curley grew up on the east side of Des Moines and graduated from East High School within two and a half years. The Drake graduate faced many obstacles in obtaining her role as an educator. 

Several parents and community members went to DMPS school board meetings to protest Curley’s hiring, stating that her presence in the district would decrease their house property values. 

The State Curator for the State Historical Society of Iowa, Leo Landis, believed Curley’s story should be highlighted in history to show how far DMPS has come from resisting change, to now seeking it. 

“It’s important to understand the stories of people like Harriette Curley who finally break some of those barriers and say, there are talented people out there of all backgrounds and we need to give everyone an equal opportunity,” Landis said. 

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