Magazine Feature

Homegrown Solutions

A resourceful Kansas town adapts to changing demographics.

On the day of the Garden City High School homecoming coronation, the halls buzzed with rumors about T-shirts sporting United States flags, T-shirts sporting Mexican flags and the threat of fistfights at the assembly.

Fights are rare at the school of 1,800 in the dry plains of southwestern Kansas, but this year's Spirit Week was atypically tempestuous. An angry exchange had taken place earlier in the week, outside of school, between small groups of Anglo and Hispanic boys, as the two largest ethnic groups are referred to locally. Some people heard that an Anglo youth had waved a small U.S. flag at a Hispanic youth and yelled, "Go back to your country." Others heard that the angry Hispanic boy had broken the flag and flung it at the youth who waved it.

The rumor of a confrontation over the T-shirts reached principal Don Barta shortly before the scheduled homecoming assembly. Concerned about the potential for violence in a crowded gym, he announced that students would remain in their classrooms and watch the ceremony on closed-circuit television.

Brad (students' names have been changed), a junior, says that at first he felt "ticked off" by the change in plans. The next week, though, he decided to turn his anger into action. "I thought, 'Shirts got us into this; maybe they could get us out,'" he explains. Brad and a friend got permission to design and sell a new school T-shirt. The front of it read "Proud To Be A GCHS Buffalo," the back "United in Excellence" and "Dedicated for Tomorrow." Surrounding a picture of the school's buffalo mascot were 22 flags representing students' countries of origin.

Such resourcefulness reflects an attitude that seems to permeate Garden City: Local challenges require homegrown solutions. Invigorated by this kind of thinking, the once predominantly White Midwestern town is blossoming into a culturally diverse community confident in its ability to function harmoniously.

Garden City began as a camp for cattlemen driving longhorns from Texas to Kansas in the 1870s. From the outset, Mexican immigrants played an important role in the town's development, providing labor for the railroad, the sugar beet fields and the sugar refinery that opened in 1906.

But this early meeting of cultures was marked more by conflict than camaraderie. Many Mexican Americans experienced discrimination. They were denied access to the public swimming pool and were relegated to the balcony at the movie theater. The turning point in Anglo-Hispanic relations came after WWII when Mexican-American GIs returning to Garden City insisted upon -- and won -- the same equal treatment they received in the military.

The struggles of these Mexican-American families helped smooth the way for later groups of immigrants. Linda Trujillo, director of English as a Second Language Supplemental Services for Garden City schools, also credits an interdenominational alliance of ministers with creating a welcoming environment for new arrivals.

In the mid-1970s, Trujillo explains, several churches decided to sponsor Vietnamese families seeking refuge in the United States. Recognizing that the town had no experience with Southeast Asian immigrants, the ministers brainstormed ways to assure a positive reception.

"They realized they could do things from the pulpit that weren't possible elsewhere," Trujillo says. Their efforts, she adds, helped inspire the general tone of acceptance and respect that now permeates the city council, social service agencies, schools and other facets of the community.

In the 1980s and '90s, the trickle of immigrants into Garden City became a flood after IBP Inc. built the world's largest meatpacking plant just west of town. An existing meatpacking plant doubled in size around the same time. These later, more diverse groups of immigrants included families from other Southeast Asian and Latin American countries who came in search of jobs. In less than 20 years, Garden City's population grew by 50 percent from 18,000 to 27,000.

The shifting demographics of Garden City, though more dramatic than in most small towns, mirror changes occurring across the country as industries cut costs by moving from unionized urban areas to non-unionized rural areas. The grueling jobs that opened up at the Garden City meatpacking plants had little appeal to most Anglo laborers, but they did attract political refugees and laborers from countries where wages were much lower.


Grow Your Own

Predictably, Garden City's demographic changes have had a tremendous impact on its schools. With voter approval, the town has built five new schools since 1985 to accommodate its growing population. Of the 7,300 students attending Garden City schools, 54 percent are now classified as racial and ethnic minorities.

Perhaps the most significant change has been the growing number of ESL students. While nearly all students in the district spoke English in 1980, today nearly 20 percent come to school speaking Chinese, Kanjobal, Laotian, Old Low German, Spanish, Thai or Vietnamese. Many of the schools have ESL programs to serve these children.

In 1994, two elementary schools with large Hispanic populations introduced Sustained Native Language programs in which Spanish-speaking students are eased from classes taught in Spanish for kindergarten to instruction in English by 3rd grade. More than 100 bilingual paraprofessionals, many of them parents, assist students and teachers in classrooms throughout the district.

Garden City's most basic challenge has been to find educators qualified to teach the growing number of students whose home language is not English -- a task far more difficult in rural areas than urban. In Garden City, which is 215 miles from Wichita, the nearest city, teachers recruited from afar have seldom stayed. But the town is tackling this problem through an innovative program called Grow Your Own that grooms students from within the school district for careers as bilingual teachers.

In 1988, the school district worked out a plan with Garden City Community College and Fort Hays State University, 100 miles north, to offer scholarships each year to six qualified bilingual high school graduates or community college freshmen who agree to enter teaching programs. In return, recipients commit to teach for at least three years in Garden City.

Grow Your Own requires four or five years to cultivate a new crop of bilingual teachers who are prepared to teach ESL classes and work with second-language students in mainstream classes. And, inevitably, some scholarship recipients drop out of the program. By the early 1990s, Garden City realized it would need additional qualified teachers -- fast. So the district added a second Grow Your Own component.

Through this facet of the initiative, district employees -- teachers, custodians, nurses and cooks included -- who apply for certification or endorsement in bilingual education or ESL (which does not require fluency in a second language) are reimbursed for tuition as they present a passing grade for each class. To date, 55 employees have added an endorsement through the program, which is financed through federal, state and local grants.

Monica Peña, an ESL teacher at Victor Ornelas Elementary, is one of the earliest Grow Your Own bilingual scholarship recipients. For the last four years she has taught KinderPrep -- a program for children who need extra preparation before starting school. "If they let me, I'll probably stay here forever," she says, smiling as her 20 Anglo, Hispanic, Laotian and Vietnamese students scramble eagerly to their next learning stations.

Peña grew up in Garden City and learned English as her first language. But she understands the fears and frustrations of students who don't speak English because her mother, Leanor Martinez, had painful school experiences. Martinez, a paraprofessional at Victor Ornelas, grew up in Texas. As the daughter of migrant workers, though, she spent childhood summers working in Garden City's sugar beet fields. Martinez spoke no English when she started school, but she learned quickly that she must not speak Spanish, either.

One morning Martinez fell on the playground. All day long her neck throbbed with pain, but she was afraid to tell anyone in Spanish. Not until she got home that afternoon and her mother hurried her to a doctor did they learn that the 7-year-old had broken her collarbone.

As a child, Martinez was placed in the back of the classroom with other Spanish-speaking students and left to absorb what she could. But today, in her daughter's classroom, things are considerably different. Peña's students are welcome to use their first language as well as English. While Peña teaches primarily in English to help children gain proficiency, she translates for children as necessary. She also reads students bilingual books that focus on cultural commonalities to promote acceptance.


Beyond the Classroom

Efforts to break through language barriers in this polyglot community are not limited to its schools. The local police department offers salary incentives to attract bilingual officers. Both the police department and local hospital offer Spanish language classes. The police department also sponsors presentations on the various cultural groups that comprise Garden City.

Promoting social interaction among these cultural groups is another goal of school and community programs. Six years ago, for example, music teacher Suzan Tarwater started the M&M Choir -- multicultural and multigenerational -- at Victor Ornelas Elementary in response to the negative comments she kept hearing from people in Garden City about kids who lived in the town's three mobile home communities.

Most of the students at Victor Ornelas reside in the largest trailer park, which mainly houses the families of immigrant meatpacking plant workers. According to Tarwater, people who had never even visited the school assumed that students at Victor Ornelas had behavior problems. She opened the choir to students, staff and the larger community, hoping that their interaction would help dispel misconceptions about the children.

The 70-member choir includes adults from a range of professions and life situations. Among the participants are a district court clerk, a Presbyterian minister, a grandmother, a tool salesman, a paramedic and a dentist. As they rehearse and perform, the adults and children laugh, talk and get to know one another. "The point is not to perform perfect music. The point is to have a really good time making music together," Tarwater says.

The choir's once-a-month performances have helped the outside community see "the trailer court kids," as they had been labeled, as individuals and not as stereotypes. Now, instead of complaints, Tarwater hears compliments about how wonderful her students are.

Both within the schools and in the larger community, team athletics has proven an effective way of weaving the increasingly diverse strands of Garden City's population into a tighter social fabric. For 15 years, Garden City Recreation has sponsored a soccer league for 6- to 14-year-olds. But the multiethnic teams that characterize the soccer league today didn't happen by chance.

In the late 1980s, recreation directors noticed that team assignments tended to fall along ethnic lines. What was happening, according to sports director Donna Gerstner, was that the coaches -- who were predominantly Anglo -- were picking their team members by name. "They would shy away from 'foreign' names," she says.

So the recreation department instituted a new draft system for all youth sports. Tryouts were held during which coaches and recreation staff ranked players on a scale of one to four based on their abilities, keeping the ratings confidential. Coaches then selected names randomly from each of the groupings to determine team membership. The recreation department also stepped up efforts to recruit coaches from different ethnic groups.

According to Gerstner, there were rumblings at first as the coaches were forced to relinquish some control over the player selection process. Also, some White parents expressed doubt about the ability of coaches who spoke little English to communicate effectively with players, a concern echoed by some of the new coaches themselves. But complaints quickly died down, Gerstner says, after parents and coaches from all backgrounds saw how smoothly the new system functioned and witnessed the social advantages of the better-integrated teams.


Challenges Ahead

While there are many people quietly easing Garden City's growing pains, the town still faces some looming challenges. One such challenge, according to Linda Trujillo, is the reluctance of many secondary teachers to change their teaching methods in order to reach ESL students. Such resistance is by no means unique to Garden City, says Dr. Socorro Herrera, assistant professor of education at Kansas State University in Manhattan and a program planner at the Midwest Desegregation Assistance Center (MDAC).

"In every district I work with, secondary teachers are so much more resistant than elementary teachers to the whole idea of material modification and adaptation," Herrera says. Secondary teachers may feel so stretched to the limit in terms of time and energy that they view adapting lessons and materials for ESL students as an impossible task, Herrera adds. In teacher workshops, she points out ways to make incremental changes, such as introducing visuals to a lesson or distilling the contents of a chapter into a couple of key points.

"I show teachers how to start with something teeny-tiny and build from there," says Herrera, a second language learner herself. "It's a process that's ongoing, but the payoff in the long run is tremendous."

Another challenge that remains is the strong tendency of high school students to segregate themselves along racial and ethnic lines in classrooms, halls and the cafeteria. Following the hubbub over homecoming at Garden City High School, though, some teachers, administrators and students have taken steps to alter these habits.

At the suggestion of a teacher, the district invited Kansas City Harmony, a group experienced in defusing racial tensions in areas undergoing demographic change, to conduct three-hour workshops with high school teachers and students. In the student sessions, facilitators encouraged the teens to move out of their "comfort zones" and interact with one another.

Michelle, a senior, says she was amazed when the facilitators pointed out that students had seated themselves in separate ethnic and racial clusters. "I looked around and noticed, 'Whoa! This is so separate,'" she says. "I thought that I shouldn't be so friend- and group-oriented that I felt uncomfortable around people who are my own age and live in the same place."

Many residents of this heartland community seem confident that they can smooth over these rough edges of difference. With equal measures of pragmatism and optimism, they also seem prepared to weed out new problems as they sprout up in Garden City.

Instrumental to Garden City's success so far, Linda Trujillo believes, has been its strong sense of community. "Garden City has grown from a dinky little community to twenty-seven thousand people, but we still have a small-town atmosphere. People still wave at each other on the street, or stop and talk. And when there's a problem, people really band together."

Another asset has been residents' willingness to stay open to change, Trujillo says. "We have a sign in our office: 'Psychosclerosis prohibited' -- 'psychosclerosis' meaning 'hardening of the mind' -- and that's kind of what we live by in Garden City. If you're hard-headed, you probably won't get along very well here."

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