116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A look at rural school districts in any direction will show that Storm Lake — a northwest Iowa city in Buena Vista County with a population between 10,000 and 15,000 — is in a very different position than its counterparts. Every district surrounding Storm Lake has a hyphenated name, indicating districts that have merged.
As many of them face long-term trends of flat or declining enrollment — a sign that a community is shrinking — the Storm Lake Community School District is bursting at the seams.
Over the past decade, the district has gained an average of 15 to 20 new students each year. Last school year, the district had 140 new students. Current enrollment stands at about 2,600 in all schools — up about 400 from 10 years ago.
“We were shocked,” Superintendent Stacey Cole recalled. “We think that Tyson (Foods, which has a facility in the city) must have opened up some new positions. We were unaware they were going to do that.”
When the alternative is decline — which has forced other rural districts to lay off staff or close schools — it’s a good problem to have, she said.
In a state that touts “fields of opportunities,” Storm Lake has been a draw for people of all colors and creeds.
An El Salvadoran who came to Storm Lake by way of Los Angeles was drawn in by Tyson 20 years ago, when it was still known as IBP.
“Back then there were few Latinos” in Storm Lake, said Emilia Marroquin, who now serves migrant workers at farms and plants around northwestern Iowa. “The community made us feel welcome.”
Her family was drawn in by the same reason they stay — a good job in a safe place to raise their family with a reasonable cost of living. That appealed to them after leaving California, where her husband worked three jobs to make ends meet.
“On these big places with (dairy) cows, guess who is (milking them)? Latinos,” she said. “(We) are the ones running the plants, doing the jobs. It’s been like that for years.”
On the many farms and plants she visits in the region, she couldn’t find a non-Latino working.
“They need to understand, these people are making your economies stable in your counties,” Marroquin said. “Diversity is something that’s going to enrich the communities.”
The attitudes in some surrounding communities are a contrast to what she sees in Storm Lake. With the environment established in Storm Lake and a stable source of income for families through Tyson, she said a better life is within reach for immigrants.
That knowledge has been a beacon to families that come from afar to join relatives in Storm Lake, building on its economic momentum. But that growth has not been purely accidental.
“Once (the immigrant population grew), we had people come here because they can find work and they know that Storm Lake is an accepting town,” Storm Lake Mayor Mike Porsch said. “They also know that they’re not going to be the only person in town who’s not white. Now we have folks that come into the community because they want to be here.”
Porsch, in his fourth year as mayor, has lived his entire life in Storm Lake.
“I’ve seen the whole gamut,” he said. “I like the way we’ve gone.”
From a town where everyone looked like him in high school to a community in which every child at one of his son’s birthday parties was of a different ethnicity, people of color have added a new dimension to life in town.
“The birthday party looked like the United Nations,” Porsch recalled.
He theorizes the openness started in the 1970s, when Laotian refugees were settled in Storm Lake under a program spearheaded by then-Gov. Robert Ray.
Cole, Marroquin and Porsch all said that, without its embrace of diversity, Storm Lake would be on the decline like other rural towns across the state.
“I’m a strong proponent that if you want to grow and bring industry and jobs, your work force is going to have to come from the diverse population,” Porsch said. “The (native) workers aren’t here.”
Tyson, the largest employer in Storm Lake with 2,400 workers, had 200 positions open as of June.
Immigrants “are hard workers. This is a great job and lifestyle compared to where they came from,” Porsch said.
And increasingly immigrants are the ones taking risks as entrepreneurs, opening businesses that thrive on Lake Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare.
But in Storm Lake, the benefits are more than dollars and cents. Many say the melting pot of Buena Vista County simply makes them better together.
“I never felt the freedom to be me until I moved here,” said Di Daniels, co-founder of SALUD, a not-for-profit that advances equity for Storm Lake’s diverse residents by responding to community health and well-being and encouraging leadership that mirrors the diversity of the city.
A native of Orange City, the seat of conservative Sioux County, she used to watch Storm Lake from afar. As other towns struggled to adapt to growing Latino populations, it intrigued her that the change didn’t send Storm Lake into a tailspin.
“I saw the handwriting on the wall — the Latino community is forging ahead,” she recalled.
She said she hesitates to use the word “community” because of how integrated the various populations of Storm Lake are into the life of the city as a whole.
“Everyone benefits” from diversity, Superintendent Cole said. “When I get to sit at a table and have lunch with people whose home experiences are extremely different from my own, I get to broaden my own perspectives exponentially.”
Children growing up there will be prepared for the next stage of their life by finding out about new experiences, Cole said.
“I’ve learned it’s so important for me to talk to people who live differently than I do,” Cole said. “Otherwise, I’m so unaware of the fact that people have different perspectives. Selfishly, it’s important to be surrounded by people not like you because it makes you better.”
Not everything’s perfect, of course.
The school district soon will have a new building to help alleviate the congestion at its chronically crowded schools. But by the time construction is finished, the middle school will be 250 students over capacity, forcing the decision of whether to move fifth-grade students to the elementary school.
School officials first put to the ballot a proposal for a much larger building with an accordingly larger tax levy increase. After the first ballot measure failed, the district received voter approval for a smaller building that will not meet projected needs by the time it’s finished.
The building will be “a third of the size we actually need,” Cole said.
In a town where officials say the actual population substantially exceeds the U.S. Census Bureau count, opening the door to missed funding avenues, pressing infrastructure demand continues to challenge city leaders. Porsch anticipates that the 2021 census will underestimate Storm Lake’s population by about 20 percent.
For years, city administrators have pointed to infrastructure usage that they say proves there are more than 10,000 people living in Storm Lake. After the Trump administration’s proposal to include a citizenship question in the 2020 census, leaders’ concerns about an accurate, updated count lingered.
“Housing is a struggle,” Porsch said of Storm Lake’s affordable housing shortage — a need that has pressed many rural areas, but perhaps in a more pronounced way in a town where the population has ballooned.
“But, we’ve probably had more housing go up in the last five years than we had in the previous 10 to 15 years,” he said.
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