Students Find Diverse Ways to Commemorate MLK Day

Students and teachers in Movement 515 march from the Iowa State Capitol to Evelyn Davis Park to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Events last Friday, such as Moulton Extended Learning Center’s preparation of 13,000 Meals From the Heartland, got the ball rolling. Over the weekend, groups like the district’s chapter of Future Farmers of America kept it up by volunteering at a local food pantry. But today was THE day!

Downtown Des Moines was relatively vacant this morning. For a good portion of the city’s workforce it’s the last day of a three-day weekend as MLK Day, the national holiday that commemorates the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is a day off from work or school for many.

But there’s no vacancy at the Central Iowa Shelter at 1420 Mulberry Street. There never is. In fact, the 150-bed facility is currently running at about 190 occupants according to A. J. Olson, the shelter’s Volunteer Coordinator. They can always use help and today they got some from a contingent of DMPS high school students who heeded the call from the district’s Youth Advisory Committee to pitch in at the shelter in the spirit of Dr. King’s legacy. Since 2000 MLK Day has also been designated as a national day of service more importantly than a legal holiday.

As Olson told her teenage volunteers this morning, “This may be a day off for lots of folks but here it’s just another day on.”

Then she dispatched them outdoors where the just risen sun chipped away at the frosty grounds while students on leave from classes policed them, filling trash bags with the refuse of the homeless. Later they went inside to help out with the shelter’s stockpiles of food and clothing.

DMPS Executive Director of Learning Services & Student Activities Matt Smith and Student Activities Specialist Jason Allen were out on patrol at the shelter this morning and they see the district’s increased emphasis on extra-curricular student engagement as a win/win for kids and the community.

“Not only do projects like this help, in this case, the homeless shelter,” Allen explained, “but they are also ways for students to help themselves.”

Last year when the school board voted unanimously not to use MLK Day as a weather make-up day after a pair of snow days in December of 2012, it also passed a resolution that stipulated “the district would invite members of the NAACP Youth Council to join with the school district’s Youth Advisory Committee in developing a recommendation for us to consider how, in future school years, MLK Day can be best observed and used as an opportunity to raise awareness and understanding among our students on issues such as civil rights, discrimination, community service, bullying or other topics that they identify.”

And so this year, those words were put into action in different ways by students.

While one delegation rolled up its sleeves this morning another preached what their counterparts at the shelter were practicing. Student-poets from the after-school writing workshop, Movement 515, were part of a morning MLK observance at The Euclid Room that included Iowa Governor Terry Branstad and Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds.

After lunch the group, along with scholar-activists from the Urban Leadership 101 class at Central Campus and student leaders from the Harding Middle School Wolf Pack, picked up where they’d left off, marching from a placard-waving rally (“I’m Not Asking You to Dream – I’m Asking You to Wake Up!”) on the steps of the Iowa State Capitol to first Evelyn Davis Memorial Park and then the Forest Avenue Library where they talked the talk after walking the walk.

While their ranks swelled in the shadow of an unmarked statue that depicts a white 19th century settler and a Native American/Iowan gazing into the distance the marchers munched pizza and swigged soda to fuel up for their hike across town. With the golden dome for a crowning backdrop, UL 101 teachers Kristopher Rollins and Emily Lang bullhorned the usual matching orders: forward, leading (always) with love and peace. Like teenaged Kings. Maybe the event was what the men on the statue’s pedestal were looking toward, way out there beyond as far as they could see.

For this committed bunch, today was no day off from school. It was just a series of field trips.

Meanwhile, at Hiatt Middle School a crowd of kids who turned in permission slips to come to school instead of stay home held a celebration of the occasion in the school gym that included a photo booth where they tweeted out photos of themselves echoing King’s ideals almost half a century after his assassination. It was a 21st century version of a pulpit or soapbox, sharing messages that echoed King.  (See their photos at

Across all levels of the district and on a variety of fronts – from shoes on the street to tweets in the Twitterverse – DMPS students keep carrying the message and realizing the dream – on a daily basis and whether school’s officially in session or not.

Photos of Student MLK Day Activities

DMPS-TV Report on MLK Day

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