Johnston students’ well-being top issue for Soneeta Mangra-Dutcher

By Ty Rushing

October 19, 2023

Soneeta Mangra-Dutcher still has work to do, which is why she is running for a second term on the Johnston School Board.

The 50-year-old mother of three Johnston High School graduates ran unsuccessfully for a board position in 2017 before she won a seat in 2019. The landscape around school board and school board races has been more politically charged since 2020, so why does she want to keep doing it?

“My kids are all out of school now, but I never got into this just because of my kids, I got into this because it matters to me what happens to everybody’s kids,” Mangra-Dutcher said. “Kids are important, how kids learn, how kids are affected by what happens in their community is really important to me.”

The topic of students’ mental health is one area Mangra-Dutcher really wants to see the district continue to make strides in. She noted that from 2012-2017, more than six students had died by suicide.

“Supporting kids who are different, supporting kids who identify as [part of the] LGBTQ community, Black and brown students, immigrants, refugees, disabilities, all of those things—if you are different in this community, you need different kinds of supports from what the norm has been,” she said.

Another issue that Mangra-Dutcher is focused on is the continued development of the Johnston Alternative Learning Programs (ALPs). Based inside the district office building, ALPs will eventually include four K-8 therapeutic learning classrooms where the focus will be on pairing academic instruction with social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health support.

ALPs also has a drop-in school program for students in grades 10-12 that combines online learning and in-person attendance. The purpose of the program is to reengage with at-risk students in a safe, supportive setting with smaller class sizes.

To support students in the program, the district will hire social workers, mental health experts, and educational professionals with experience in therapeutic classrooms. ALPs classes will have about six students in them and they are intended for students who have either behavioral issues or just don’t do well in a regular classroom.

“We’ll be starting construction on that soon,” Mangra-Dutcher said.

While being on the school board has always come with having to make hard decisions, Mangra-Dutcher said expulsion hearings were the toughest part of the job for her until 2020.

“When I got into it in 2019 and we had three expulsion hearings, I thought, ‘Oh gosh, this is the hardest thing I’ll ever have to do,’ and then the pandemic hit,” Mangra-Dutcher said. “And you’re like, ‘Crud, we really are making some decisions that are going to impact kids.’

“And not just kids, kids’ families, the community, and a lot of decisions were made for us and then it’s how do we implement that decision? Schools were told they had to shut down, OK, so then how do we move forward?”

In March 2020, Gov. Kim Reynolds recommended all Iowa schools close to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. At that time, Mangra-Dutcher said Johnston didn’t have large systems in place to move school online and the board and administrative team had to figure it out on the fly.

“I was, at first, very much against keeping kids at home because of the mental health impact,” she said, while also noting potential academic loss. “You don’t know what their home life is like and forcing them to be in that situation 24/7, but it became apparent, obviously, that being not in an environment with 1,500 other human beings was probably the best decision to make at the time with what we knew.”

Another big change from Mangra-Dutcher’s first and second school board races to this one is the financial cost—she spent $30 combined on those first two races—and the amount of campaigning she has had to do.

“I am not the social butterfly, but I’ve had to become one,” Mangra-Dutcher said. “My voice is important and as the first person of color ever on the Johnston School Board, I think I need to continue to use my voice so that people, kids, families, see themselves in the district, see themselves as being supported, [and] having a voice in the community.”


AT A GLANCE:

Name: Soneeta Mangra-Dutcher

Position: Johnston School Board candidate (incumbent)

Age: 50

Residence: Johnston

Education: Graduated from Des Moines Roosevelt High School in 1996, earned an associate’s degree from Des Moines Area Community College in 1996, earned a bachelor’s degree from Upper Iowa University in 2001.

Experience: Spent more than 20 years in the workforce development and curriculum development sector.

Family: Husband, Tracey; three daughters, Kitarrah, 24; Sierrah, 21; and Marandah, 20.

Interests: Huge animal person, her family has five cats and one dog and they foster animals for Safe Paws Iowa.

by Ty Rushing
10/19/23

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  • Ty Rushing

    Ty Rushing is the Chief Political Correspondent for Iowa Starting Line. He is a trail-blazing veteran Iowa journalist, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and co-founder and president of the Iowa Association of Black Journalists. Send tips or story ideas to [email protected] and find him on social media @Rushthewriter.

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