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Diversity in Iowa Schools: It's a Small World After All

We've been hearing about some of the challenges with diversity in the Iowa City School District. There are other districts in Iowa with diversity policies, some of them much smaller. Two and a half hours from Iowa City is the town of Postville.  

Postville made national news five years ago when the federal government raided the town's Hasidic owned meat packing plant and hundreds of undocumented workers were arrested.

Today, the town with a population of just over two thousand continues to be a hub for immigrants, most recently, an influx of Somali Muslims. In the final installment of a series about diversity in Iowa classrooms, reporter Sandhya Dirks visits the Postville school district to see how they are dealing with diversity. 

Drive through the snow covered windy roads of northeast Iowa and you pass through a lot of small towns. They resemble each other-- with a large main street, lined with one or two restaurants, a gas station, and a general store.  But drive into Postville and its motto stands out.  This is the place that calls itself "The Hometown of the World."  That sentiment is something the high school hallways here bring to life--

Just listen to the names listed in an announcement on the high school loudspeakers,  "Lopez, Alex, Ali, Juanito, Clayburn, Jose," calling a multicultural mix of students to the office for a meeting about soccer practice.

Superintendent John Rothlisberger says that is the way it is here, "there are no majorities in this district anymore, everything’s a minority."

Rothlisberger is filling in as interim Superintendent.  He’s been here for just a year, and he says it has been a life changing experience, "the first day of school was actually the one that probably opened my eyes the most, when kids started entering the building, and you began to recognize this was not like any district I had ever been involved in before." 

He describes Spanish spoken right alongside English and East Africans dressed in colorful traditional clothing, the girls covered in modest -- but vivid-- Muslim garb.  He says coming to school was like walking into a mini United Nations. Rothlisberger says that feeling is due, in part, to the districts diversity policy,  "rather than just all of a sudden deciding, well we can’t get along, they put a diversity policy in place that actually created the need to get along." 

Postville schools did that by basically eradicating open enrollment.  Open enrollment in Iowa means no matter where you live, you can send your kids to school in other districts.  In rural areas like Postville that could mean nearby towns. But Postville’s diversity policy said no, you can’t do that. With rare exceptions if you live here, your kids go to school here. To put it crudely, the policy prevented white flight. High school principal Brendan Knudtson says in a small town proximity demands integration, "If I live in Iowa City or Cedar Rapids I can find a neighborhood that is like me, here, you don’t get that choice. It’s one neighborhood. It’s not a big town." 

But it is a wildly mixed town. There are Somali refugees fleeing war and famine, a mix of legal and undocumented Latinos, and a few European immigrants.  Knudtson says that means he and his teachers have to constantly improvise. Especially when it comes to the language gap. Some students barely speak the language. 

In a room down the hallway, teacher Svetlana Borisiva is schooling some Latino students in English,  "finances, money, simple way money, do you know muchodinero? Yes? Great! So finances is dinero."

Borisiva is known as Miss Lana to her students. She has a thick Ukrainian accent and a solid grasp on how to teach generations of immigrants English. Miss Lana says even though she came here decades ago and Postville is her home, her own history helps her empathize with the young people, "I teach them life, I teach them life. Most of them come from extremely poor parts of Mexico or Guatemala, and they don’t really have a lot of prior education." Her job is more than language teacher she says, it's also the role of cultural guide. 

Even students who are used to American-- and Iowan-- schools say Postville has opened up their world.  Just ask Senior Alex Sanchez. He used to go to school in Waterloo. While there he says he just hung out with other Mexicans, most of whom were family.  In Postville he hangs out with Somalians and counts Guatemalans as close friends. One thing that brings them together? Soccer. Sanchez says he likes it here so much, that when his parents were thinking of making a move, he pleaded for them to stay, "they were thinking about moving back to Waterloo, but I told them no, cause this school is my, it’s like my…" Sanchez fumbles as if ready to say the word home, and then finishes with a slightly different thought, "I love this school."

Also fond of the school is Salat. Salat serves as a part time translator for the schools new Somali population, many of whom speak no English, particularly the parents. Because Salat speaks English, he has become something of a community liaison. He is proud of the fact, he wants to give something back to his people. Salat is soft spoken and handsome, and there is something gentle about his manner. He came to the U.S. in 1998---when he was 18. He first moved to Seattle with his family, but when there was no work his parents came here to Postville and he came with them. He says people need jobs, and they come here because of work at the meat packing plant. But he also says Postville has developed a reputation as a immigrant friendly town, "I agree with them when they call Postville home town of all people around the world. That is true, and that’s good. But there’s gonna be always culture shock, you know what I mean?"

That culture shock goes both ways. While all these diffrent groups coexist, they don't always mix. At lunch in the high school cafeteria everyone sits at the table with the people who look like them. Principal Brendan Knudtson says it's like any high school, there are still cliques and for the most part, like sticks with like. It's true for the town as well.

Knudtson tells me about one night in Postville, after he left a classic small town American tradition, the Friday night football game, "I’m driving down main street and I see at least eighteen to twenty Hasidic Jewish Rabbi’s in full garb marching two by two down the sidewalk. I turn left to go north, and they are having a dance in the Mexican restaurant, a Latino dance. I can hear the music going. And then I look on the right, and I can see the Muslims praying in the other corner store. And that was in a block in a half, in Northeast Iowa." 

Knudtson says what makes it so remarkable is how normal this is. He tells me that there isn't a lot of racial tension in the town, just curiosity. This seems to be because difference is easier to accept when it comes from so far away and when it lands so close to your front door.  In this growing and diverse community there is just nowhere for difference to hide. In Postville, I’m Sandhya Dirks, Iowa Public Radio News. 

Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter.