This Iowa school district has state's highest rate of students from immigrant families

And it's helping set a precedent for welcoming diversity throughout the state

First-graders Melanie Bonilla Lopez and Jamie Diaz, both 6, learn the correct gender pronouns for Spanish words in their
First-graders Melanie Bonilla Lopez and Jamie Diaz, both 6, learn the correct gender pronouns for Spanish words in their dual language classroom at Irving Elementary in Sioux City. Melanie and Jamie speak both English and Spanish at home and learn in both languages at school. (Lillian Mongeau/The Hechinger Report)

SIOUX CITY — The rolling backpack was gray with bright orange zippers. Made by Totto, a popular South American brand, the backpack had been 13-year-old Cristian Rubio’s hand luggage on his flight from Ecuador to the United States.

“I had some crazy memories with it, like friends hopping on my backpack and racing each other,” said Cristian, now 18.

He was glad he had something from home as he walked alone into North Middle School to start eighth grade in his new hometown of Sioux City. Certainly, nothing else about his life was normal that day last fall.

He and his older brother, Esteban, were staying with their grandmother, who had traveled to the states with them. The Rubios had decided to move to the United States to pursue a brighter future for the boys and to Sioux City to be near family.

But wrapping up one life to start the next is complicated, so the boys were sent ahead to start school anew while their parents stayed in Ecuador “to try and sell everything we ever owned.”

Cristian’s grandmother told him that morning to say no if anyone tried to sell him drugs, and to find out how to get one of those big yellow school buses to pick him up at their house.

But she didn’t know much more than he did about what an American school would be like. He was scared.


“I went straight into the office and I requested somebody that speaks Spanish, because I could not get anything the lady from the office was saying,” he remembered.

He’d taken English classes back home, but the people here seemed to speak incredibly fast.

Cristian’s experience as a newcomer student is an increasingly common one. America is in the midst of its second major wave of immigration, rivaling the first great wave, which crested in the early 1900s. About 6 percent of today’s immigrants are children and 26 percent of all children in the country in 2017 had at least one immigrant parent, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank.

And yet the immigrant experience still is an unusual one in Iowa — a state that looks quite unlike the rest of the country. Iowa is 18 percent whiter than the country as a whole. It’s also home to far fewer immigrants — 5 percent to the country’s 13 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

But that’s changing.

Immigrant families growing in Iowa

The percentage of Iowan children from immigrant families grew from 2.4 percent in 1990 to 11.3 percent in 2017, according to the Migration Policy Institute. And Woodbury County, home to Cristian’s adopted hometown of Sioux City, had a higher percentage of students from immigrant households (17 percent) than any other county in Iowa as of 2017, according to the Center for Immigration Studies, another think tank.

As a result, Sioux City — a meatpacking town on the banks of the Missouri River — is more diverse than most of the rest of the state.

In 2018, for the first time in district history, a majority of Sioux City’s 14,976 students, about 52 percent, were people of color. (The country as a whole passed that benchmark in 2014.) And 20 percent of district students are classified as English Learners; a third of these students report being born outside of the country, according to district documents.

Sioux City has been a landing pad for immigrants for decades. Before World War II, it was home to many Italian families seeking work in the meatpacking plants.

In the 1970s, a wave of refugees fleeing Vietnam arrived. Since then, Mexico and Central America have been the primary countries of origin for new arrivals.


In 2017, a pork-packing plant opened and brought another 2,400 jobs to Sioux City. Locals attribute the most recent wave of immigrants, this time from African countries, to the plant.

Today, children from Central America, Mexico and Africa make up the bulk of the schools’ immigrant student population. Their parents are drawn by jobs in the packing plants and the low cost of living.

Once they arrive, they tell their sisters and their cousins that it’s a good place to raise a family and the immigrant population grows some more. As of 2018, more than 10 percent of the city’s residents were born in another country, according to census data.

“I can tell you, in less than a decade, it has become more diverse and open,” said Tori Albright, who coordinates the world languages program at the Sioux City Community School District, one of the largest employers in town. “No matter where you go, you see people from all different cultures and heritages.”

Even with plentiful low-skill jobs and with some immigrants running small businesses or finding better paying jobs as translators or tutors, poverty still is a reality among recent arrivals. Overall, the state Education Department calculates that 61 percent of Sioux City students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a standard federal measure of student poverty.

‘Diversity is the face of the Midwest’

Consulting teacher Emily Jasman has taught in Sioux City since the 1980s when most new immigrants had come from Vietnam. She now helps other teachers learn how to teach immigrant students who are still learning English. After nearly 40 years in Sioux City, Jasman is fed up with the idea that Iowa is a poor bellwether in the presidential nomination process because of its lack of diversity.

“I want you to know how proud we are of our diversity,” she said. “Diversity is the face of the Midwest.”

That’s not quite true yet, but it is increasingly the case in the region’s schools. The lessons Sioux City’s district leaders have learned about welcoming immigrant students could help educators across the state and the region prepare.

For Cristian, what mattered most on that terrifying first day was that North Middle School was ready for him.


Shortly after his request for someone who spoke Spanish, a teachers’ assistant Cristian remembers as Ms. M — “one of the greatest teachers that always tried to help you” — arrived to take him to his first class. He also learned he’d arrived an hour late for his first day, which explained the empty hallways. Daylight saving time had been the day before and since it’s not observed in Ecuador, no one in his family knew to adjust.

In that first class, designed for newcomers, he found a mix of Latino and African students seated in rows of four of five. When he took his seat, the class was already in progress, but the kids on each side greeted him quietly.

Then the bell rang for second period and they all got up to leave. Cristian was startled. Back home, the teachers rotated classrooms and the kids stayed put. But Ms. M was back to guide him through the busy hallways and he followed her gratefully.

“It definitely made me remember all the movies I’ve ever watched that settled in an American school,” he said of walking the crowded hallways on that first day. “I saw many students passing by me while they were talking to their friends. It made me feel small and remember about my friends back in my country.”

He soon found that his fellow immigrant students and the many kids born in Iowa to Spanish-speaking parents were easy to befriend. And, as the year went on, his earlier education at a private Catholic school in Ecuador served him well.

He started picking up on words he knew from his English classes back home, then adding new ones and soon enough he was placed in regular classes. Now a senior, Cristian is enrolled in four advanced placement classes and two dual-credit classes with the local college. He is set to graduate from North High in the spring.

Leaders embrace the growing diversity

Not every immigrant student arrives in the United States with a strong educational background. But rather than see the new students with their wide variety of needs as a problem, district leaders said they embrace the growing diversity of their town.

Albright, a Midwesterner who went to college in Florida, said it’s the reason she picked this district to work in.

“It’s the quaintest, cutest, most diverse place I’ve ever been in the Midwest,” she said as she navigated the broad roadways connecting North Middle School in the hills on the edge of town to Irving Elementary School, more central and closer to the banks of the Missouri River.

Irving is home to the district’s dual language program, which launched in 2005.


Enrolled students, some from English-speaking families and some from Spanish-speaking families, learn all subjects in both languages from kindergarten through fifth grade.

In middle school, they take a special language arts block class in Spanish. And in high school, they move on to advanced language courses, including two AP Spanish classes. Until this year, just about 45 to 50 students per grade level have been part of the program, with about 30 per grade level sticking with it through graduation. That equates to about 3 to 4 percent of the district’s student population. But now every entering kindergartner and first-grader at Irving is enrolled, bringing the total to about 110 in each of those grades.

Building confidence is the aim of dual language programs, which are meant to keep all kids up to grade level in every subject, rather than allowing some to fall behind due to their lack English skills.

All Sioux City teachers receive coaching from specially trained “consulting teachers” like Jasman on how to best help their students who are still learning English. And a special phone service the district pays for, called TransPerfect, allows teachers and principals access to on-call translators to help them communicate with parents in more than 150 languages.

“They have recently added Tigrinya,” Albright said by email, citing a language common in Eritrea and Ethiopia, “which is great for us because we have many students who speak this language.”

But simply teaching English to children who speak a different language at home isn’t enough for educators here; they want all their kids to have equitable access to everything their schools offer.

“Public education is free and accessible to all,” Albright said when asked why all this work seemed necessary to her. “And all means all.”

IowaWatch is part of the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, a nonprofit, news website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting. This article was produced by an IowaWatch partner, The Hechinger Report.

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