Surprising Iowa

kids

Students at Des Moines North High School

I have been spending time over this Thanksgiving break with family in Iowa. It’s a state with a strong farm tradition and where traditional values have s strong foothold. My children growing up always looked forward to visiting Iowa, as they could count on things not changing radically from one visit to the next. Yet Iowa can surprise. It was one of the first states to make gay marriage legal. In terms of demography, Iowa is not known for its diversity. But an article in the Des Moines Register this week pointed to significant shifts in the population which mirror the demographic trends in the U.S., where for the first time white students are in the minority in U.S. public schools:

A model of this new American student diversity is right under our noses, which might surprise people outside Iowa. In Des Moines, the public school system has been “minority majority” since 2011. National Journal discovered this last month, writing that the school district could be a “model for urban schools” in blending students that speak 100 different languages and dialects and come from Myanmar, Mexico, Thailand and more than 20 other countries.

The article chronicles how schools in Des Moines are dealing with the needed increase in English language instruction. That lack of English proficiency has led to overall lower scores on standardized tests. The principal of the Des Moines North High School had a refreshingly positive view of the changes in the student population:

“We represent the world,” said Des Moines North High School Principal Michael Vukovich. “It’s an advantage. We don’t have to leave the U.S. to learn about different countries. We have all those cultures in our hallways…We don’t focus on proficiency as much as growth. Assessment tests are a weak predictor of success.”

The Des Moines school district is unusual in Iowa in terms of diversity. The state is predominantly rural, and, as in other rural areas of the U.S.,  there is less ethnic diversity than in urban areas, while the politics tends to trend conservative. In fact, politically, Iowa has had an interesting mix of progressive and conservative elected officials. It was the state that gave Barack Obama the initial boost he needed to win the Democratic primary in 2008. In the recent election, however, Iowa went a different way, replacing one of the most progressive U.S. Senators, Tom Harkin, with a political newcomer, Joni Ernst. She made a splash in the early days of the campaign by touting her farm experience castrating pigs, which she said would be helpful in “cutting pork” in Washington, D.C. Although she focused her campaign on her Iowa farm roots, critics have pointed to the variety of far-right views and conspiracy theories she has embraced in the past. After her election, she commented that she was looking forward to going to Washington and “making them squeal”. Let’s hope that she learns from the experience of the Des Moines school district, that it’s possible to work together with people different from you in fundamental ways, and that it would be good to shift her rhetoric from castration to cooperation. Maybe barn raising would be a good farm symbol for what the U.S. political system needs today.

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