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Minority is a majority

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

On the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling ordering the integration of schools, an era of change is official in Storm Lake - the ethnic "minority" is now the majority in local schools.

In the Storm Lake School District, 1,124 of the 2,011 student body is considered to be of minority background - or 55.5 percent. Over 50 percent of students in each building except the high school are considered minority, and in one elementary, more than three out of four are minority.

The student minority population continues to grow by 20-30 students per year, pushing the percentage up a few points annually.

The district's experience is a marked difference from Iowa as a whole. Statewide, one in five schoolchildren are minorities.

"Immigration has certainly changed our district, and what has changed it most is a lack of proficiency in English," Storm Lake Superintendent of Schools Bill Kruse said.

"People say it has changed our educational programs, but I don't see that at all. It has caused us to provide for English as a second language instruction at the same time as we work very hard to maintain a challenging curriculum for our English-speakers," Kruse said. "We constantly fight the battle against the perception that adding minority students means that our best students are no longer challenged as well - and I can tell you that perception just isn't true."

Immigration has had a positive impact on the district in many ways - not the least of which is the growth and the per-pupil funding that goes with it. Storm Lake is one of the few cities and districts in rural Iowa to show continued growth.

"We believe there is a real positive side to the diversification. In Storm Lake, all of our students are exposed to different cultures, and we believe that better prepares them for the diversity they will encounter in the world, the country - and here in Iowa."

On the anniversary of the decision on segregation - it seems that a time when people were separated by colors is far distant from the experience in Storm Lake today.

"We are not interested in segregation. In fact, we walk a careful line to make sure we aren't segregating anyone based on any factor," Kruse said. "In the midwest, I think it was always an issue not of how people could be segregated, but how schools could do their best for all of the students."

The more modern issue to address is grouping by skill levels, not ethnicity, Kruse said.

State laws still apply certain anti-segregation regulations. One that has come into play in Storm Lake in the past is a rule that demands that no one school in a district can be more than 15 percent off the district average for minority population - which helps to ensure that larger districts do not segregate social groups into a particular school with potentially more or less academic opportunity than the community as a whole.

In Storm Lake today, North Elementary has easily the highest percentage of minority students - 76 percent, but is within the state guidelines. South and West are next, both with 64 percent. The high school is the only building in which minorities are not the majority - currently at 44 percent.

Monday marked the anniversary of the 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, a case that grew from a lawsuit in which a Topeka, Kan., man tried to enroll his daughter in an all-white school and was refused.

Today, blacks and Hispanics make up the largest minority groups in Iowa, with both representing about 5 percent of public school enrollment. Hispanics outnumbered blacks by about 2,000, records showed.

The highest minority representation is at Dr. Walter Cunningham School for Excellence, Waterloo, where 86 percent of the students are minorities.

Bernice Richards, a retired teacher who now sits on the Waterloo school board, said she is concerned about some of the concentrations of minority students in the district.

"I do feel that a diverse setting is very important in teaching young children because they will not be in their own little world with their own little culture all of their lives," she said.

But Richards, who finished her first year at Iowa State Teachers College in 1954, said what once was a concerted effort to diversify schools has begun to wane.

"As the years go by ... things are reverting back to the way it was gradually, sad to say," she said.

Louis Lavorato, chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, recognized the anniversary of Brown v. Education with a proclamation, calling the ruling a "turning point in the nation's march toward racial equality."

* With Associated Press reports.



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