This story about immigrant students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. IowaWatch is the exclusive Iowa partner. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.
SIOUX CITY, Iowa — The rolling backpack was grey 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 a week earlier. It was one of the few things of personal significance that he’d brought with him.
“I had some crazy memories with it, like friends hopping on my backpack and racing each other,” said Rubio, 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, Iowa. Certainly, nothing else about his life was normal that November day.
He and his older brother, Steven, were staying with their grandmother, who had traveled to the states with them. The Rubios had decided to move to the U.S. 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.” That meant Cristian started his first day of school in America without a hug from his mom or a reassuring smile from his dad. Nor did he walk into school with his brother. Stevan was headed to high school, an even bigger building than the massive-seeming middle school, both perched atop one of the few hills in the area on the northern edge of town.
Cristian’s grandmother had 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 remembers being 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 dedicated to studying migration and immigration trends. And yet the immigrant experience is still an unusual one in Iowa — a state that holds enormous sway over the 2020 election but looks quite unlike the rest of the U.S. 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.
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 that tracks immigration statistics.
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 1980s, a wave of immigrants fleeing the war in 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 the city. Locals credit the plant with the most recent wave of new immigrants, this time from several African countries.
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 the U.S. Census Bureau.
“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 paid jobs as translators or tutors, poverty is still a reality among recent arrivals. Overall, the state department of education calculates that 61 percent of Sioux City students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a standard federal measure of student poverty. (The district uses a different formula and counts even more students who qualify as low-income.)
Consulting teacher Emily Jasman has taught in Sioux City since the 1980s when most new immigrants were 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 political bellwether 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.”
If that’s not quite true yet, it is increasingly the case in the region’s schools and 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, with leaders like Albright and Jasman setting the course, 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 savings time had been the day before and since it’s not observed in Ecuador, no one in his family knew to adjust their clocks.
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, which was reassuring. 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 AP classes (Psychology, Biology, Computer Science, and Spanish) and two dual-credit classes with the local college (physics and calculus). In addition, he co-captains the “Rainbow Six Siege eSports Team” (e-sports teams compete in organized, multiplayer video game contests), is the vice president of the e-sports club and is a member of the National Honor Society. Cristian is set to graduate from North High School in the spring.
Not every immigrant student arrives in the U.S. with a strong educational background, like Cristian, but rather than seeing the new students with their wide variety of needs as a problem, district leaders said they have embraced 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 live and 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 (“Language and Culture” and “Literature and Culture”). 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 kindergartener and first grader at Irving is enrolled, bringing the total to about 110 students in each of those grades.
In a third grade math classroom at Irving on a recent winter morning, Jessica Chavez-Perez, 8, Cadmiel Sandoval, 8 and Mishelle Orellana, 9, were working on addition and multiplication using a grid. Their teacher, Luis Lemus, stood in front of an interactive digital “chalkboard” explaining in Spanish that 4×6 and 6×4 are two ways of noting the same product: 24. The three kids, all born in the U.S. to immigrant parents, followed along easily. Their textbooks were in Spanish and matched exactly with the English textbooks other district third graders use.
“I’m really good at math,” Cadmiel whispered in English when Lemus, the district’s 2020 Teacher of the Year, paused for kids to work out a few problems on their own. “It’s easy.”
Building confidence like Cadmiel’s 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 in content due to their lack of skill in English.
In addition to its growing dual language program, the district checks all the more traditional boxes on how to help students who speak a language other than English at home. They have a streamlined registration process that allows new students to register, get assessed for language competency and sign up for school-based services all in one place. Newcomer classes, like the one Cristian attended in eighth grade, are focused on direct language instruction in English for the most recent arrivals. Math and science are offered in special “sheltered” classes for students who are still learning English. Teachers in these classes move through content a bit more slowly and carefully define words as they go. In the best sheltered classes, language instruction becomes seamlessly integrated into content instruction, allowing kids with a variety of English skills to keep up.
All Sioux City teachers, not just those who run sheltered classes, 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.”
In that spirit, the district recently added world drumming classes that incorporate African drumming traditions and provide a nonverbal learning experience to the music curriculum. Having won multiple awards and honors for their music education program, Pat Toben, who coordinates arts and community engagement for the district, is determined to make music accessible to all as well. There is a nascent effort to add a mariachi ensemble at the high school level. And the department works hard to provide instruments, appropriate clothing and transportation. They’ve also reevaluated some longstanding policies. For example, students are no longer graded on attendance at evening concerts.
“You can’t grade kids on their access to transportation,” Toben said.
Mid-December 2019 was frigid in Sioux City, with temperatures dropping into the low-teens and single digits overnight. School offices across the district were decorated for Christmas and holiday concerts were planned, many chock full of traditional Christmas carols. Lots of teachers did not understand why their efforts at Christmas cheer might feel unwelcoming to students from other cultures, Toben said.
She wishes they’d stick to “happy holidays” and sees the issue as an example of how far the district still has to go to change school culture enough that everyone is able to easily join in. For example, while the fifth grade band, elementary orchestra, middle school band and middle school orchestra reflect the diversity of the district, those numbers drop off in high school. Just 31 percent of the high school band and 39 percent of the high school orchestra are students of color. And while diversity has been steadily increasing at the high school level too, Toben sees further diversifying the music program as a top priority.
Meanwhile, the district has been working for the past decade to expand advanced academic opportunities for Spanish speakers. Twenty-nine students, many of whom were members of the charter dual language program at Irving, graduated with the Seal of Biliteracy in 2019, the first class in Iowa to have that opportunity. The Seal, earned by 91,433 students nationwide in 2018, is a nationally recognized honor for students who have completed advanced coursework in both English and Spanish. California pioneered the program in 2011 and it has since been adopted by 38 states and Washington, D.C. Iowa adopted the Seal for the 2018-19 school year and awarded it to 775 students in 2019. Another 23 Sioux City seniors are set to earn the honor in the spring of 2020.
Cristian is taking the AP class he needs to earn the Seal this spring, but the scores will come in over the summer, so he will likely earn the Seal after graduation. Whether or not he has the extra sticker on his diploma on graduation day, his parents will be there, smiling and clapping at this latest sign that their plan is working: Their children are succeeding in America.
“I want them to go study so in the future they can better their situation,” said Cristian’s father, Alex Rubio, 52. He and his wife arrived a few weeks after the boys back in 2015. Now, they live with their sons in a cozy, single-story home a few blocks from a shopping plaza, complete with a Starbucks.
“The system here is more open and they tend to choose what they study,” Rubio said. He ran a small business in Quito, Ecuador’s bustling capital city, and now works in a packaging plant in Sioux City. The work is physical and tiring, but he believes it is worth it if his sons can secure a place for themselves in this country.
As invested as he in in that future, Rubio pays little attention to national politics. For his part, Cristian said he doesn’t like what he’s heard from Republicans about cracking down on immigration and building a wall on the Southern border, but said he mostly keeps his head down and focuses on his studies.
Ignoring politics while living in Iowa this past year is something of a feat with the approaching Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3, the nation’s first test for presidential candidates. From Jan. 1, 2019 until a few days before the caucus, Democratic presidential candidates had visited Sioux City 65 times, more than once a week, according to records kept by the Des Moines Register. And yet few people here were interested in talking politics.
That included Merhawi Reda, 13, who was more interested in talking about the extended family he left behind in Eritrea and the days when they would visit their farm outside the city and play in the swimming hole. Merhawi is an eighth grader in Libby Greene’s sheltered science class at North Middle School, the same school Cristian attended. The boy, dressed in a navy blue T-shirt and a scarf, is new to Sioux City this year but arrived in the U.S. when he was 10. Despite missing aspects of his old life, he said he’s happy here and hopes to go to college in the states.
“I like to fix all kind of stuff,” he said as he used a magnifying glass to examine the chalk powder his group had just made as part of their science experiment. “It looks like mountains,” he murmured.
Merhawi and his classmate, Gitu Gobana, 12, rattle off the countries their classmates are from — Guatemala, Somalia, El Salvador, Mexico — and enumerate their siblings. Gitu is from Ethiopia and has three siblings at home, plus her mom and dad. Her mother works at the Tyson plant. Her dad helps people do their taxes. Is he an accountant? She thinks so.
Merhawi’s parents both work at Seaboard Triumph, the pork processing plant that opened in 2017. He lives with them and his three siblings in a house that costs a lot less than the houses in Texas, where his family first settled. He finds Iowa cold, but said he likes his classmates and all the projects they do and he’s glad his parents have found regular work. His only wish is that “we would have classes for fixing stuff — to learn how.”
Cristian was Merhawi’s age when he arrived in Sioux City. While it may seem like a long jump from sheltered science, where the teacher keeps pausing to define words like “frozen,” to AP classes, Cristian is not a stand-alone rock star. The 2017-18 districtwide graduation rate was a respectable 86 percent and the graduation rate for non-native English speakers that same year was 79 percent. While that’s a gap district leaders would like to close further, it’s far smaller than the national average. In 2016-17, the latest year for which data is available, the national graduation rate for English-language learners was 66 percent compared to 85 percent overall, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. (Iowa has one of the highest graduation rates in the country, at 91 percent. And while Sioux City, one of the poorest districts in the state, trails that average, its English-language learner graduation rate is just one point behind the state average of 80 percent.)
Raquel Valladolid, 17, is another local success story. She started kindergarten speaking only Spanish; this spring the National Honor Society member will graduate with a diploma bearing the Seal of Bi-literacy. Like a growing number of students from immigrant families here, Raquel was born and raised in Sioux City. Her mother is an English tutor working for the school district and her father works at Tyson. Both of the elder Valladolids are from Mexico.
Raquel plays piccolo and flute in the school band, is a member of her high school’s Quizbowl team and a varsity tennis player. She’s headed to the University of Iowa in the fall, where she plans to major in English and education and hopes to become a teacher like those who helped her family’s American dream come true. Not every kid she grew up with has been able to achieve the same success though.
“There are a lot of changes needed to the system in general to get people biliterate,” she said. “High school classes aren’t enough.”
A class is “an artificial way to learn a language,” she said. She thinks there should be more opportunities for real-life immersion, which she hopes would also create more opportunities for mixing between kids who speak Spanish at home and those who speak English.
There are also nearly a dozen other languages spoken in Sioux City homes, including Arabic, French, Somali, Haitian Creole, Vietnamese, Oromo and Amharic (the last two are commonly spoken in Ethiopia, as well as other African countries). While kids speaking these languages are mixed together in sheltered classes for English-language learners, they don’t currently have the opportunity to learn academic subjects in their home language alongside native English speakers.
Albright is aware of the issue, but it’s a hard one to fix. For one thing, adults fluent in the new-to-Iowa languages who also have the necessary teaching qualifications are hard to find. So are materials authentically created in those languages. Either Arabic or Mandarin Chinese might be the next language Sioux City offers advanced coursework in, she said, but there are no specific plans for either so far.
Zachary Crawford, 17, is one of the few white kids in town who will earn the Seal of Biliteracy this spring. His mom, Kerry Hildring, 46, is a teacher and his dad is a truck driver. Both are from the area, which was much whiter when they were kids. Hildring saw the bilingual program as a chance for her son to interact with people from all different cultures. “It was amazing,” she said of her early observation of Irving’s dual language program.
“I don’t want to say it’s necessarily shaped me into who I am, but it kinda has,” Zach said of the program. “There’s a lot of hate in the world, and this program helped me stay away from that hate.”
Zach, who sports a wild mane of blond curls, said he felt there were still a “select few with out-of-date views” in town, but that most people were accepting. Mother and son said they’d noticed that older white residents tended to more “resistant” to the changing demographics of the city than younger people. “I wouldn’t say with my generation it’s completely gone,” Zach said, “but it’s better.”
Cristian said most people he’d met in Sioux City were friendly. He has overheard some native English speakers making fun of his accent, but he ignores them to avoid conflict.
“I don’t wish them any harm or anything,” said Cristian, who these days wears his hair in a neat side part, a long dark swath of it waved to the side. “I just hope they would take into consideration that the U.S. has been always been a pot of cultures … and it should be OK to see different cultures and races.”
Like Raquel, Cristian thinks the district could do more to encourage students to get to know each other across racial and language barriers.
“It feels like they try to protect [English-language learners] from other students,” he said. “It’s a hard issue. It’s kind of difficult to find a balance between sheltering all the English learner students and sharing classes with the English speakers.”
But for now, it’s not a problem he’s focused on. He’s more concerned about getting into college, where he wants to study computer science. Like so many immigrant students here and across the country, he hopes to honor his parents’ sacrifices and to make them proud. And the backpack, still a comforting tie to home, is now securely stowed in his closet.