Hispanic now the majority in SL schools

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

A "minority" has become the majority, at least it has in the Storm Lake School District, where 24 different native languages were spoken by students this past school year.

Based on 2017 enrollment numbers, Hispanic students now make up over 50 percent of the students in every public school building in Storm Lake, and 53.4 percent of all students districtwide. Nearly 84 percent of all students are non-caucasian. No change in that trend is in sight, as the highest percentage of Hispanic students for any school is for the youngest of students - in the Early Childhood Center, over 60 percent of the students are Hispanic, and only 12 percent are caucasian.

District leaders contacted by the Pilot-Tribune hadn't been aware that Latinos had become the majority of the student body.

"It is rather remarkable - a watershed moment for sure," Storm Lake School Board President Peter Steinfeld reflected. "I don't know what it means, ultimately. It is a very international population. When you walk in the schools, it almost feels like being in a foreign country. That's the reality that makes Storm Lake unique and special."

He felt that Storm Lake is becoming an indicator of how the entire country will been changing in the near future. "We're becoming browner and younger."

New Superintendent of Schools Stacey Cole found the shift in demographics exciting. "Whichever way those demographics change, it poses a challenge, and is also an opportunity to grow. We have the opportunity to embrace it, to take it head on, and become the model for Iowa. Every education book I read says this is how all schools will be 30 years out - we get to live in the future."

The ethnic makeup of the schools has little meaning for the students who have grown up with diversity, says Cole. "I don't think they even see race, but as a district, we do need to be aware, so we can recognize and honor all the differences that come to the table.

"I do think this moment in time is important though. What an honor it is to live in a community where people from all over the world can live together and get along so well."

District wide, 53 percent of students in 2017 were Hispanic, 18 percent Asian, 16 percent caucasian, almost 6 percent black, 5.5 percent Pacific Islander, and 1.5 percent identify as a mix of two or more races, according to the district's online statistical postings.

The district also compiled a listing of languages spoken by students for the past school year.

Twenty-four different native languages were represented among the 2,577 students.

Spanish (or Castilian) is spoken by more students than English as a native language - 42.8 percent to 35.4 percent.

Lao is a distant third at 4.8 percent, followed by Karen (from the Burma and Thailand border areas) at nearly 5 percent, Pohnpeian (a Micronesian language native to the Caroline Islands) is fifth at 4.2 percent, and Hmong (spoken by ethnic groups in China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand) has 3.5 percent.

Mayan Languages are spoken by 2.23 percent, and the same percentage speak Nilo-Saharan (one of the four major language stocks spoken on the African continent.)

Small numbers of students (under 1 percent of school population each) speak one of the following: Russian, Swahili, Vietnamese, Arabic, Central Khmer, Amharic, Cebuano, Chuukese, Sudanese, Tigrinya, Thai, Panjabi, Gujarati, Chinese, Burmese and Albanian.

As of 2017, 61 percent of the students in the Storm Lake district were considered ELL or English Language Learners, with the highest level at the high school - nearly 68 percent. Of these students requiring additional language help, almost 41 percent were Hispanic, almost 14 percent Asian, about 4 percent Pacific Islander, nearly 3 percent black.

"The English language skills have to be there," Steinfeld said. "But in a lot of cases, we are now talking about second and third generation young people living here. English is not the issue for many of them. What it comes down to is that we are facing the same educational process for everyone, preparation for life, problem solving, critical thinking, quantitative skills."

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