A State of Change

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Photos by Benjamin Tice Smith

California invaded this, the last best place on earth, in 1991. That was the year that Bushwhacker USA, a Ventura County-based maker of bicycle bags, fled the Golden State's high tax and crime rates for a small warehouse in the heart of this farming community, population 2,100.

Change of this order is not a frequent visitor here. Nor is it a particularly welcome one. "A lot of people would like to put gates up on both ends of the county and shut 'em," says Dave Rich, an agent with Farm Bureau Insurance.

Almost since Morgan was incorporated as a city in 1868, its residents have conspired with the town's geography to keep most of the world's goings-on at bay. Morgan sits almost a mile high, its homes and farms spreading across the floor of a Wasatch Range valley in northern Utah. Mountains surround the town, rising from all sides like seats in theater-in-the-round. The view is spectacular--the rounded mountains look as though they were thatched of the pale-yellow grasses and green scrub-trees that cover them. But it wasn't until an interstate highway pierced this beautiful backdrop in the 1960s that passage into the valley was made safe.

Until Bushwhacker's relocation, Morgan remained blissfully isolated from the constant churning of this country's social order. Almost everybody who lived in town was white, and almost everybody was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But with Bushwhacker would eventually arrive roughly half of the company's 75 employees. Most were low-wage line workers who stitch together the bike bags. And most were Mexican-Americans. Almost overnight, Morgan residents running errands about town were rounding corners and coming face to face with people whose skin color and accents marked them as outsiders. A trip to the town's only bank, or its only grocery store, or its only post office suddenly became a cultural experience--sometimes an unwanted one.

Hispanics encountered on the street could be ignored, but their children, by law, had to be educated. The town's three schools draw some 2,000 students from all parts of the county, yet never before had the district faced the task of educating a child who could not speak English. That had always been the job of schools in big cities and Mexican-border states like California. Now, Bushwhacker had brought the town about a dozen new children from those very same schools, most of whom knew only a few words of English. Within a year, as the company brought more workers from California, the dozen would grow to two dozen.

Prodded by law and the educator's credo that all children must learn, Morgan's teachers and staff members set to work learning a language foreign to them--the language of bilingual instruction. No one knew it then, but soon, the schools would become one of the few bridges to span the deepening cultural divide in Morgan between the Old West and the New West.

Morgan is not the only beachhead for change in Utah. Nearly 150 years after Mormon leader Brigham Young blazed the trail to this state, his promised land has become one of America's hottest places to live. Utah is the fourth fastest-growing state in the country, with its population projected to swell by 25 percent this decade, more than twice the national average.

The growth has done more than just push the state's population within a whisper of 2 million. Consider the seismic shifts recorded in schools and education policymaking here in recent years.

Salt Lake City this year hired the state's first Hispanic superintendent, a woman who previously headed a California school district where minority students made up 93 percent of the enrollment. Meanwhile, the legislature--a notoriously stingy bunch not given to throwing money at any problem--targeted extra cash for schools with heavy concentrations of minority and poor students. Since 1990, it also has earmarked first-ever dollars to fight gangs in schools, prevent teenage pregnancy, and help homeless students.

Educators, in turn, held their first statewide diversity conference in January. Superintendents and district officials--most all of them home-grown--flocked to the meeting to ponder such buzzwords as "multiculturalism" and "acculturation" and returned home to scour the country for bilingual teachers.

This is not the norm for Utah. Ever since it was admitted to the Union in 1896, Utah has been a cultural and social island within the lower 48 states. The demographic portrait of the state could be a snapshot of the Osmonds, the clean-cut Utah family that rocketed to entertainment stardom in the 1960s and '70s. Like Donny and Marie, the state is white and Mormon, homogeneous and wholesome.

Such a stereotype obviously simplifies the reality of Utah's past and present. But it will be an even greater distortion of Utah in the 21st century if migration to the state continues. The arrival of some 20,000 outsiders a year is tweaking the state's historically vanilla demographics. At least a third of the newcomers are from California, including a good number of Los Angeles refugees. Most of the new arrivals--62 percent by at least one survey state officials cite--are not Mormons. Minorities account for only 11 percent of the in-migration, but that is still almost twice the percentage of nonwhites who now live in the state.

Utah's economy lured people to the state as it steamed through the first half of the decade, spinning off record numbers of jobs. Also, the state's "quality of life" indicators--low home prices, population densities, and crime rates--earned it top honors in the surveys that tell you where to find the "good life."

Thanks to the new faces trickling over the borders, Utah as it nears its centennial celebration is slowly--slowly--slipping into the national mainstream. "We're becoming more and more like the rest of the world," says Robert B. Smith, the provost at Weber State University in Ogden.

Schools may be the pioneers in the state's diverse future. The number of Hispanic students has jumped 75 percent in the past decade. Likewise, enrollment by blacks and Asians or Pacific Islanders also climbed 69 percent and 59 percent, respectively. Last year alone, minority students made up 84 percent of the state's enrollment growth.

All this does not mean that Utah is becoming a California-style melting pot. Minorities still make up only 9 percent of the state's 472,000 students--less than a third of their share of the national enrollment.

But Salt Lake's selection this year as host city of the 2002 Winter Olympics has convinced school officials that this is just the first of many waves of change to come. "All the press and all the attention about our strong economy and quality of life--it's going to bring more people here and more diversity," says Stevan Kukic, the state director of at-risk services for schools. "I believe we're on a path to much more diversity."

Bushwhacker officials knew they had to get out of California. The high costs of building rents, unemployment taxes, liability insurance, and other expenses were crushing their company's competitiveness. And the crime and gangs of Los Angeles were closing in. "It was almost like a cancer creeping up on us," says Kurt Basset, the company's vice president.

When Basset and Bushwhacker owner Jeff Sims came to Utah in 1991 to scout relocation sites, a state economic-development official met them at the airport. Utah aggressively recruits businesses to locate within its borders and has few peers when it comes to smokestack chasing. The state's latest coup was this spring's decision by Micron Technology Corp., a leading computer-chip manufacturer, to build a $1.3 billion semiconductor plant in the town of Lehi, population 13,000.

Micron joins a host of other high-tech companies that have set up shop in the 45 miles between Salt Lake City and Provo and earned the area the nickname Software Valley. In the parlance of economic development, such companies are known as "clean" businesses. Not only do they promise little environmental pollution, but the workforce they bring with them is often well-educated and well-paid.

Bushwhacker was not such a desirable catch for Morgan. Its workers' wages are low--Basset says the pay is intended as secondary income for senior citizens or people taking their first jobs. Some Morgan residents weren't happy that "that kind of company" was coming to town. City officials argued that Bushwhacker would pump up Morgan's tax base, but critics countered that the company's workers would become big consumers of social services. Some people were "not enthused about the Spanish-speaking workers," says Dave Rich, who was then Morgan's mayor. "As city officials, we heard about it. But as city officials, we felt it was an opportunity to provide jobs and some tax base for the community."

Morgan is not the only town in the Rocky Mountain region tied in knots over such New West growth issues. Six of the eight states in the Rockies--Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico--rank among the dozen fastest-growing states in the country. In each of these states, the merger of old and new has not always been smooth. Whoever is at odds--city dwellers and country folks, environmentalists and ranchers, or Hispanics and whites--the bottom-line question is usually the same: A booming economy and population may boost incomes and living standards, but will they also erode the quality of life?

Often, schools are the first to feel the tension over this question. While a family's move to a new state may insert one or sometimes two adults into the workforce, it can bring two, three, four, or more new faces to the schoolhouse door. "Schools are on the leading edge of this," says Donald Snow, a Utah native and the executive director of the Northern Lights Research and Education Institute, a Missoula, Mont., nonprofit organization that studies social and environmental issues in the West. "That's where it shows up first, and that's where it stays the longest."

In Morgan, the arrival of the Mexican-Americans has coincided with growth that some in town believe is hurting the schools. Enrollment climbed 30 percent in the past decade, pushing each school close to 700 students and forcing the district to put portable classrooms in the parking lots of the high school and the elementary school.

For those who believe that smaller is better when it comes to schools, and for those who attended K-12 before any of Morgan's schools topped 450 in enrollment, such change is cause for alarm. "People ask me, 'What's the matter with the school?"' says Morgan High School Principal Hugh Davis. "I say, 'There's nothing wrong. It's still a very good school."'

Already fearing their schools are overburdened, these Morgan residents are not eager to see their tax dollars pay for the education of the Mexican-Americans. Nor do they want the curriculum doctored to accommodate the newcomers.

"There's resentment that we're having to provide language instruction to them," says W. Lee Dickson, Morgan's mayor. "I've had at least one of the schoolteachers call me with concern about the impact that it has had on the schools. And I get a sense through casual conversations that that feeling is fairly widespread."

Walking the streets of Salt Lake, it's hard to believe that state officials talk about its "inner city" problems. Even though it's the state capital, its population of 160,000 is not enough even to put it on the list of the country's 100 biggest cities. Mountains rise from behind the city, lending its concrete and steel a feeling of both openness and security.

But the enrollment in Salt Lake's schools makes it clear that the city has more in common with New York City and Los Angeles than you might imagine. In January, Gov. Michael O. Leavitt drove this point home in his State of the State speech when he described his visit to Edison Elementary in Salt Lake. "There are 359 students in this school," Leavitt told lawmakers. "One hundred ten of them spoke one of 17 languages better than English. Over 20 of the students have fathers in prison, at least eight have mothers in prison. Nearly 75 percent of the children came from families with only one parent. During my visit, the principal took from the closet a bag of guns, knives, pornography, condoms, and other items he confiscated from the children during his first year there. He told stories of abuse that were heartbreaking."

Last winter, state lawmakers approved Leavitt's plan to help schools with concentrations of minority and poor students similar to those at Edison. They budgeted an extra $4 million for 40 schools to use for any needed school improvement, including hiring counselors, teachers, and bilingual instructors.

Many of these so-called "highly impacted" schools were in urban centers such as Salt Lake, where the number of low-income students has grown by about half in the past five years. Others were in suburban districts such as Granite, where police are battling gangs whose ranks have grown with the influx of Asians and Hispanics.

But to the surprise of many state officials, enrollments at some rural schools also met the demographic thresholds required to get funding. In Wendover, a small town near the Nevada border, minority students make up 70 percent of the high school's enrollment. Casinos are being built across the state line, and Hispanics are coming to fill jobs in the hotels and restaurants springing up in town.

Morgan does not receive money from the impacted-schools program. "We don't have a problem in comparison with that," says Superintendent Dale Christensen. "We're just a little rural provincial community that's now getting its first taste."

To help the Hispanic children when they first came to school, Christensen deployed a few teachers and staff members who had learned Spanish when traveling abroad as young missionaries for the church. But both teachers and the Hispanic families say the students' first days in school were rough. Some children spent most of their time simply looking at picture books, says Laraine Whitear, who teaches 7th and 8th grades. "They were just little lost souls."

Alma Teran, a Mexican-American who moved to Morgan with Bushwhacker, says through an interpreter that the language barrier spoiled her two children's school and play time. "When other kids would talk to them, they couldn't understand what they were saying. It wasn't until they started speaking English that they made friends outside the Latin community."

The need to do more for the children became even more urgent to Christensen when he learned that the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights was reviewing how well seven Utah districts were serving students with limited English proficiency. Two of those reviews are still pending, but no district has yet to pass OCR muster. The 3,400-student San Juan district in southern Utah, which enrolls a large American Indian population, has faced discrimination suits as well as the OCR review.

Such scrutiny has jump-started state and local school officials. "Sometimes, we have to be charged to do something that we know we ought to be doing anyway," Associate State Superintendent Jerry Peterson told a group of educators at a diversity conference this summer. The OCR reviews, "as negative as they may have sounded, really served to slap us by the side of the head and say, 'Get wise."'

In Morgan, Christensen hired two bilingual aides for the 1994-95 school year and accelerated work to assess English proficiency and competency as required by federal law.

"It's kind of sad that we have to respond to the fear element," he says. "Down deep, we want to provide a program. There's no question about it. But I guess something needs to get your attention that reality is out there and it's something that you just simply can't ignore. Not that you consciously want to. You're just being bombarded with 100 different types of demands and expectations, and that one has not been on our high priority list."

Christensen found one of his new bilingual aides already on the district's payroll, working as a lunch lady in the cafeteria. Susana Chard arrived in Morgan County 15 years ago, having met her future husband, Douglas, while he was on a Mormon mission in her native Argentina. They met only briefly, but Douglas wrote Susana frequently from his next post in Syria. When he returned to his home near Morgan, his next letter to Susana included a one-way airline ticket. They were married two months after her plane touched down.

A short woman with long hair and a soft voice, Chard radiates warmth, energy, and compassion, qualities that the Hispanic students have tapped to soften their cultural adjustment. Soon after she took the job, Chard realized that the local children could help ease that transition if they better understood the plight of their new classmates. Once, after two boys poked a particularly shy Hispanic girl with pencils and tripped her in the hall, Chard took a turn teaching the girl's class.

The class's regular teacher promised a test based on Chard's discussion of castles in the Dark Ages, but Chard opened the lesson speaking only in Spanish. Hands went up all over the room, and students whined. "You could see the frustration in their faces," Chard says. But the little girl, Lupe, was smiling broadly.

"After several minutes," Chard recalls, "I said to them in English, 'Well, now you know how Lupe feels. But not only for three or four minutes, like you had to feel. She goes to the grocery store, she goes to the post office, she tries to find her way to lunch, and all the time she's surrounded by people who speak another language. And sometimes they expect things from her. And she doesn't know how to do those things because she doesn't understand."'

Hired by the district to help students with their English, Chard also made it part of her job to reach out to parents. As the children assimilated and learned English, she realized, they became disconnected from their parents. Already isolated from the community, the adult Hispanics were now losing touch with their children, too.

Douglas and Susana's efforts to gain the parents' trust got off to a rocky start last winter with a "snow" party they hosted for the Mexican-American families in their cozy log-cabin home near Morgan. Their guests stood stiffly, drinking and eating little and saying even less. "It was colder inside than it was outside," Douglas remembers.

In January, taking a tip from a bilingual expert, Chard started English classes for the Hispanic parents at the middle school. Gathering on Friday nights, the Chards taught verb conjugation, grammar, and other English-language rudiments. Several Morgan teachers pitched in to help with the classes, and a few who were interested in learning Spanish began helping the parents practice their English. The parents, in return, helped the teachers practice Spanish.

The chance to sit and talk with the parents about Mexico or their experiences in America helped close the culture gap that posed as much of a barrier to teaching as the language differences. Linda Spendlove, for example, had given up hope that she could ever control two Hispanic boys in her 2nd-grade class who were misbehaving. Notes that she sent home went unanswered. But in one of her Friday-night classes, the parents explained that caste systems exist in many parts of Mexico where teachers occupy the most respected positions.

"The teachers are up here," Spendlove explains, "and the parents don't talk to the teachers. They just assume that the teacher will do what's best for the child. They don't feel like they can come and tell you how to do your job. The teacher is all-knowing."

In terms of cultural exchange, the crowning glory for Chard and the Hispanic parents was a party organized last spring to introduce city council members, school board members, the county sheriff, and other community leaders to Cinco de Mayo, Mexico's holiday to celebrate a key victory in its war to remain independent of France. Tamales, tacos, and refried beans were served in heaping quantities, and one of the parents--a mariachi--roamed among the tables. Seating was orchestrated specifically so that many of Morgan's most prominent citizens shared the evening with their new neighbors.

"It was the first time that some of these city fathers and county commissioners and businesspeople had ever been in the same room with Spanish-speaking people," Christensen says. "It was a wonderful chance just to get acquainted."

The task facing Morgan and many other towns in Utah and other Rocky Mountain states is one described in the works of Pulitzer Prize winner Wallace Stegner, the poet and writer who chronicled the ethos of the West until his death in 1993. Born in Iowa but transplanted to the West after spending part of his childhood days and college years in Salt Lake, Stegner looked upon the West as the "native home of hope." If the region can eschew rugged individualism and embrace cooperation, he once wrote, "then it has a chance to create a society to match the scenery."

In Utah, hope abounds that Stegner was right. State and local officials talk about the need to"celebrate" diversity, and they get high marks for taking on the issues of race and poverty sooner rather than later. "What I've seen in Utah has impressed me," says Darline Robles, the new Salt Lake schools superintendent. "They are not waiting for this to get to a point where it's overwhelming. They're acting now."

Still, some say the state's leaders have made only token efforts to address such issues and will balk at solutions that require more money. The $4 million approved for impacted schools pales in contrast to the $90 million in tax relief the legislature passed this year, notes Lily Eskelsen, the president of the Utah Education Association. "They easily could have doubled that $4 million, or tripled it, or quadrupled it and really made a difference."

Questions also are raised statewide about whether Utahans can live up to the motto from the state's bid for the Olympics: "The World Is Welcome Here."

"There are tremendous attitudes that we have to fight," says Cynthia Taylor of Utah Children, a state anti-poverty group. "In certain places, the attitude is: 'We don't like newcomers--especially newcomers of color."'

In Morgan, city officials recognize that the Old West is fading into the New West. Morgan's population will double in the next dozen years as the county evolves into a bedroom community for Salt Lake and Ogden. The town will lose its rural charm, of course, but Mayor Dickson and other city leaders hope to determine Morgan's new persona. They will continue to recruit businesses to bolster the tax base, Dickson says, but these firms will be "clean" high-tech companies, not businesses like Bushwhacker.

"In the growth that's taken place here so far," he says, "I am really pleased with the caliber of the people who have moved in to the community, generally speaking. They are highly principled, moral people with educations and are able to make good livings. They're an asset to the community. Morgan's not the rural community it used to be, but it's being populated by very, very fine people. My hope is that as this inevitable growth comes, we just continue to attract these kinds of people."

The schools, meanwhile, are preparing for a future in which Morgan's diversity grows. Migrant farm workers have moved into the county who are Mexican, Chard says, and they have many infants and preschoolers due to start school within the next few years. The Olympics, too, should introduce Morgan's beauty to many people of different cultures and backgrounds.

"I don't see diversity as a problem," Christensen says. "I see it as an opportunity. It's a challenge and an opportunity for growth and assessment. You learn your own strengths and weaknesses when you identify your differences. And I really believe that's a positive."

Like it or not, change has come to Morgan. Like an invading army, it has scaled the mountains that ring the town and now stands ready to overrun it. Within the town's own ranks are those who want to embrace change, not fight it. They believe, perhaps foolishly, that the last best place on earth can be made even better. And that may be the biggest change of all.

Vol. 15, Issue 02

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