Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the 2023 National Black Child Development Institute’s annual conference in Charlotte, NC. We had rich and illuminating conversations with early learning researchers, policymakers, advocates and practitioners of all ages. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.
Dr. Anita Fleming-Rife was born and educated in Iowa, “a product of Des Moines Public Schools back when Iowa was number one in the country in terms of education.” Now, as BCDI-Iowa Village President, she has returned home to work with educators, parents and more to build childhood learning in alignment with Iowa’s traditional place of educational excellence.
Chris Riback: Dr. Fleming-Rife, thank you so much for joining the studio.
Dr. Anita Fleming-Rife: Thanks for having me.
Chris Riback: So I think we should start, tell me about your journey. I know that you are in Iowa now, but the history and the getting there I think helps tell the story about the present?
Dr. Anita Fleming-Rife: Absolutely, absolutely. I was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa many years ago, and I was a product of Des Moines Public Schools back when Iowa was number one in the country in terms of education.
Chris Riback: Wow.
Dr. Anita Fleming-Rife: I left, went to undergraduate school in Colorado, did my doctorate at Southern Illinois. In 2004 I was conducting a study on Brown versus the Board of Education. It was the 50th anniversary of Brown. And in doing my literature review, I read that African-American children were doing better in the South on every academic measure than African-American children in the North. And so I said, “Well, let me look up Iowa’s data.” And I was just blown away that we were so low, we were no longer number one, and African-American children were at the bottom rung of the ladder on every academic measure. And at that point I said, “When I retire, I’m going home.” So I came home in 2015.
Chris Riback: Well, you may have, quote, retired, but I know that you are-
Dr. Anita Fleming-Rife: The only difference between working and the work that I now do is there’s no paycheck involved, but it’s from my heart, it’s something I believe that I owe to the children. I was just the beneficiary of a great education, and I think every child should have that. Every child is entitled to that.
Chris Riback: For sure. Before I ask you about what you are doing today in Iowa, what happened in those years between when you were in elementary school, high school in Iowa, and when you looked at the data again in 2004? What happened in there?
Dr. Anita Fleming-Rife: I can look at Iowa specifically, it’s only my view that Iowans valued education, and I mean at the state level, the state legislators. It was a part of our DNA. I no longer think that’s the case. And so I look back at the education that I received. For example, I never heard that African-American children didn’t do well on tests. I never heard that. We are also the originators of the Iowa test of basic skills, ITBS. Kids all over the country took that. Everybody did well on that test. So there’s, I think, a lower expectation. I hear a lot of stories that really have no basis in the research, such as, “Poor children don’t do well.” I’ve always known poor children and many of them have gotten law degrees from Yale and Princeton and-
Chris Riback: Went to do just fine.
Dr. Anita Fleming-Rife: I think the community has disintegrated. So there’s not that sense of community or that sense of a village being present to support these young mothers and people who do not have the necessary resources. Yes.
Chris Riback: So tell me about the Iowa Village, the NBCDI, Iowa Village. What are you doing there?
Dr. Anita Fleming-Rife: Des Moines Public Schools, if I can share this with you first to backend to it some more.
Chris Riback: Please.
Dr. Anita Fleming-Rife: So I have continued to read the data. I started going to school board meetings, I connected with the school board members, the school superintendent, to find out what those issues were. Des Moines Public Schools, for example, has since 2014, recognized that there was a serious problem with African-American males. And so they started monitoring males of color. Not just African-Americans, but Hispanics and African-Americans. And so they’ve done that. Two or three times a year, they put on a report, and every year we find out since 2014 that we’re still at the bottom of the barrel. So they have not said, “Okay, we need to do this to remedy the problem,” but they just keep looking at it, not fixing it, not putting forth any efforts. The same way with regards to reading and math.
That’s where the children, I think are not being served. So I had heard about NBCDI maybe 40 years ago or so, and I started looking at it as a source to help us help the children. We have focused on reading literacy. So this summer we started out with a reading literacy program. Summer, we had four volunteers, two were teachers, and one, in fact, the chair of the committee holds a major position at a major corporation. Another-
Chris Riback: So you’re really getting people involved?
Dr. Anita Fleming-Rife: People involved, their own time, their own resources, come to the schools and work with these kids directly. So we’ve gone beyond providing books to really sitting down, showing up and sitting down with these children.
Chris Riback: And the parents have to appreciate that?
Dr. Anita Fleming-Rife: And the parents do appreciate that, and we’re getting them involved as well. Yes.
Chris Riback: The parental involvement combined with the schools, it takes all of that. Yes. Well, I’m sure that everyone is very happy that you’ve returned to Iowa. We’re happy that you came by the studio. Thank you for making the time.
Dr. Anita Fleming-Rife: Thank you so much for having me.