Equity & Diversity

Immigrants Trigger Change, White Exodus in Iowa District

May 17, 2005 8 min read
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Like a growing number of other places in America’s heartland, West Liberty is watching its share of minority students shift into the majority.

In this working-class Iowa town of 3,600, about 65 miles west of the state’s southeastern border with Illinois, the changes are less visible than they are consequential for the local economy and school system.

Downtown West Liberty, Iowa may look the same as it has for years, but an influx of immigrants has forced major changes in local schools.

West Liberty’s quaint, brick-paved downtown now features authentic Mexican cuisine and a mercado, or small local grocery store, along with the traditional bank and pharmacy. In the schools, announcements are in Spanish and English. Soccer is the new sport, and separate signs give the location of the school office and oficina.

Forty-eight percent of West Liberty’s 1,200 schoolchildren are Hispanic, said Becky Rodocker, an Iowa native who taught Latino children to speak and read English in California before returning here as superintendent. In kindergarten through 8th grade, Hispanic students are the majority, at 54 percent.

The number of districts like West Liberty will continue to grow in the years and decades to come in Iowa and other states, demographers say. (“Newcomers Bring Change, Challenge to Region,” May 4, 2005.)

Immigration has brought joys and challenges to the school system here.

Children of different backgrounds learn together and befriend each other. Yet educators are troubled that some Hispanic students see little need for a diploma or a future in professional work. And some Anglo families have withdrawn their children from the district’s schools, prompting West Liberty to seek approval from the state education agency of a plan that restricts student transfers into other districts

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Chart: Iowa

With the federal No Child Left Behind Act pushing schools to improve instruction for immigrant as well as U.S.-born students, raising test scores will be no easy task, as many Hispanic students here are still learning English.

Veteran high school English teacher Carol Clark and other educators here say they are learning lessons that other districts may need to follow in the near future, even in the smallest of towns.

Ms. Clark, for one, is upbeat. “Whatever fortuitous accident this was,” she said of the town’s changing population, “is wonderful.”

Changing Times

West Liberty’s first Hispanic families arrived from Mexico almost a century ago as railroad workers.

The town’s manufacturing-workforce demands increased with the opening of a turkey-processing plant in the 1950s, and immigrant meatpackers were brought from Texas to live in dormitories, Ms. Clark said. Over time, workers brought their families here and moved into permanent housing.

In the past decade, as the demand for construction and service-industry workers has increased in Iowa, even more immigrants have arrived.

In recent years, however, that trend has put new strains on the district.

When Ms. Rodocker arrived as the superintendent in July of 2001, a steady stream of families was leaving the public schools.

Ten percent of white students have left the district since 2001, amounting to $400,000 a year in lost state revenue—or about 5 percent of the district’s budget—based on per-pupil enrollment.

To soften the fiscal blow and to help maintain its racial and ethnic balance, the district successfully sought approval from the Iowa Department of Education for its plan to restrict student transfers under Iowa’s open-enrollment law. Under the plan—approved July 1, 2004—parents must still seek district approval for any student transfers to neighboring districts. But, unless a matching Hispanic or other minority student arrives to keep the ratio of whites to Hispanics the same, Ms. Rodocker doesn’t have to grant what had been automatic permission to leave.

“Our schools should reflect our community, and that wasn’t happening,” she said.

Public Perceptions

The changes presented many other challenges for West Liberty school board members, who are rethinking local school policies and spending to better serve the changing enrollment.

Fay Cline, a school board member and lifelong West Liberty resident, was surprised to learn that fliers the district distributed to Hispanic parents in Spanish were written so poorly that they insulted some local Spanish-speaking residents. “We didn’t speak the language” of many parents, she said. “As board members, we played a lot of catch-up.”

Rick Sanchez, 15, sits on his customized bicycle while talking to friends outsidethe El Torito Mexican restaurant in West Liberty.

Superintendent Rodocker said she heard townspeople use racial slurs to describe local immigrants, and had doors slammed in her face as she campaigned last year for a successful bond vote to build a new high school. “They use the N-word for our Hispanics,” she said of some residents.

Another board member, Bill Laughlin, said whites’ attitudes toward the town’s Hispanic residents are changing. “My kids feel very fortunate,” he said. “They don’t see the difference.”

But some business owners have complained that Hispanic youths often hang out downtown, dominating the sidewalks.

Ruben Galvan, the town’s first Hispanic parks and recreation director and a former coach in the West Liberty schools, said youngsters spend time downtown because it’s where some of them live. Apartments above storefronts have made downtown one of West Liberty’s most heavily Hispanic neighborhoods. “That is their playground,” Mr. Galvan said.

To give youths more outlets for their energy, Mr. Galvan opens a community gym on weeknights for basketball and other activities. He hopes to start more recreational activities this summer, for children and adults.

Learning the Language

To help immigrant students learn English, and to help native Iowa students learn Spanish, the school district has begun a dual-language immersion program. After some early resistance to the program, Ms. Rodocker calls it a success.

Families can choose whether to enroll their children in the classes, which are taught in both English and Spanish and will reach 7th grade in the next school year. Native Spanish-speakers often feel more comfortable in the classes, at least in their first year or two, since part of the instruction is in their native tongue. At the same time, native English-speakers pick up on Spanish. About 250 students are in the program.

In teacher Daniela Thome’s kindergarten room, where the Spanish alphabet was posted atop the chalkboard, a group of children read aloud in English one day in March. “After recess, we’ll switch to Spanish,” Ms. Thome said.

Last year, West Liberty school officials hired a full-time translator and family liaison. Paula Wood, an Iowa native who studied in Guatemala, plans parent workshops and consults with school leaders daily.

On a recent morning, she responded to a school’s call for help.

Paula Wood, left, a translator for the West Liberty school district, talks with Eliseo Tapia, center, and his daughter, Laura Rios, during a recent parent-teacher conference at West Liberty High School.

Ms. Wood arrived at West Liberty High to help enroll a Hispanic student whose family spoke little English. At first, the student and his guardian looked stressed when the secretaries seemed unable to answer their questions or find paperwork the family had left at the school.

Then Ms. Wood, speaking Spanish in a friendly tone, put them at ease. The men departed with smiles and warm goodbyes after everything was settled—thanks to a gregarious young woman familiar with their language and culture.

Está bien,” Ms. Wood told them, meaning, it’s OK.

Even with the changing demographics, West Liberty has met its goals for adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act for three years leading up to and including 2003-04.

But Ms. Rodocker said that the district’s 4th grade reading scores for Hispanics will likely fall short of the AYP targets this year.

“We have some challenges that other school systems in the state of Iowa don’t have, and yet we’re doing a lot of really good things,” said Eric Sundermeyer, the district’s curriculum coordinator.

Concern About Expectations

Few Hispanic students—especially girls, who were encouraged at home to devote themselves mainly to housework and eventual motherhood—graduated in West Liberty through the early 1980s, educators here say.

Graduation rates of Hispanics have risen, but remain hindered by the undocumented status of many families. “If you’re undocumented, it completely permeates every aspect of your life,” said Ms. Wood, the translator and family liaison.

Parents who lack U.S. citizenship or proper papers are afraid to work too closely with educators, fearing they might be reported. Children can be undocumented, too, making them ineligible for many jobs, and barring them from scholarships or other financial aid at the state’s community and four-year colleges.

Ms. Clark takes prospective first-generation college students to visit colleges and big-city workplaces in Chicago to expose them to opportunities beyond the square-block streets of West Liberty. Her students recently organized a career fair that drew so many local teenagers that students plan to expand it next year and invite Hispanics, primarily, and other students from the surrounding area.

“It was fun, and it showed people actually did care about college,” said Alex Garcia, a 10th grader at West Liberty High School who worked with her twin sister, Elizabeth, and others on the event.

Parent Jose Zacarias, who came from Mexico 20 years ago to work at the poultry plant and now works in manufacturing in nearby Iowa City, said he fears the schools and the town still have low expectations for Hispanics. He has removed two of his children from the West Liberty schools, and plans to send the third to a Catholic school in Iowa City next year.

Mr. Zacarias has pulled his children out of the public schools here “for a reason,” he said.

“The reason is the expectations are low,” he said. “We still have two communities in town, the Hispanic community and the Anglo community.”

Mr. Galvan, the parks director, said the school system needs more Hispanic educators and other role models for students. “They need to have the same expectations as they do for an Anglo student,” he said of teachers and administrators.

Ramiro Ramos, a senior at West Liberty High, agreed. “I want to see tougher classes,” he said. “I want to make it more challenging to pass a grade and move up.”

Still, the divide between education for native residents and immigrants may be narrowing in the heartland.

“My brother’s in the 2nd grade, and he’s in the dual-language program, and he speaks Spanish better than I do,” said senior Jessi Kelly, who has taken three years of Spanish. “By the time those kids get in high school, it won’t be a problem.”

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