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Selling diversity: Pelican Rapids schools seek to dispel rumors, cast cultures in positive light

The hallways at Pelican Rapids High School bustle with diversity between classes on a typical school day. (David Samson / The Forum)1 / 3
Samantha Johnson and Bayaan Booker walk together down the hallway at Viking Elementary in Pelican Rapids, Minn.2 / 3
Pelican Rapids High School students share a laugh while watching a skit performed during lunchtime in the school cafeteria. (David Samson / The Forum)3 / 3

At her graduation speech last spring, Pelican Rapids salutatorian Kristine Neu told a story that spurred knowing laughs.

At an agricultural education convention the year before, students from a neighboring district had asked about surviving this quiet town of 2,400 and her school, which hosts teens from a dozen countries. "Is it true that if you walk down certain streets in Pelican Rapids, you will get shot?" someone asked.

More than a few students here have fielded outsider questions about metal detectors, gangs and ethnic strife in their school. Though members of this welcoming community brush off such rumors with a chuckle, doubts about how the district manages diversity persist locally, school officials say.

Last year, concerns came up in the run-up to the district's failed operating levy vote. Earlier that year, a report said such concerns might partly explain the unusually large number of district students enrolled in neighboring districts.

Twin Cities area superintendent and consultant Roger Worner, who interviewed numerous parents, students and staff, wrote that "a significant amount of resident student out-migration from the district is an outgrowth of discomfort with student diversity."

Now, district leaders are thinking about going on an image offensive. They're considering ways in which they can recast diversity as a selling point rather than a hurdle.

Diversity issues

When High School Principal Glenn Moerke joined the district 20-plus years ago, more than 95 percent of the students were U.S.-born. Over the past decade, new arrivals from Cambodia, Laos, Bosnia, Serbia, Ukraine, Iraq, Somalia and other countries have settled here, joining more-established Hispanic farm laborers in the area. Many of these newcomers work at the West Central Turkeys processing plant.

Today, more than 30 percent of the district's roughly 1,000 students are nonwhite; the great majority of them are learning English. At Viking Elementary, children from four continents routinely share cafeteria tables, and Somali girls wearing the hijab walk the hallways arm in arm with friends of Norwegian heritage.

"Watching the news is so discouraging sometimes," says Pelican Rapids immigrant advocate Johanna Christianson, who says she admires the town's tolerance and inviting atmosphere. "When you walk down the hallways of Viking Elementary, you feel hope for the world."

But Worner's organizational study says concerns about the schools' handling of diversity might have some parents opting for neighboring districts.

Last year, 17 students from other districts went to school in Pelican Rapids; more than 160 Pelican students enrolled elsewhere. The net loss, which inched up in recent years, cost the district $900,000 in per-pupil state aid last year alone.

One parent concern the report identifies is that the staff needs to devote disproportionate time and resources to helping English learners catch up.

Arlan Stangeland, a Pelican resident and longtime former state representative from Barnesville, says that's an explanation he often hears in town for the out-migration of district students: "The reason given is that many students aren't getting enough attention because the minority students require a lot of time to educate."

District officials point out minority students bring in some $2 million in per-pupil funding. The state provides additional funding for English learners, and the district has three teachers who spend one-on-one time with newcomers to the country.

Several groups in the district - students with limited English proficiency, blacks and children who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch - have struggled to make annual progress in math or reading under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

But district students as a whole met proficiency targets in math and reading. The district's National Governor's Association average rate - which experts generally consider more reliable than other graduation measures - is 10 percent above Minnesota's rate and climbing.

Another concern community members repeatedly voiced in interviews with Worner, the consultant, is that the district has a discipline problem, an outgrowth of tensions between various ethnic groups. But his review of discipline data and extensive observations at the schools didn't bear out the concerns.

Jeff Stadum, the Pelican Rapids police chief and longtime school resource officer, said some newcomers need time to adapt. They might talk loudly over their teacher's lesson or chase each other in school hallways.

"Some of them come from countries that are totally chaotic, and they don't always understand the rules," he says. But fighting and other serious violations are rare, he says.

Outside the community, some paint a grimmer picture of the situation at the schools and in town. Dena Johnson, a district parent who served on a volunteer referendum task force, has a dozen friends in the area who've passed on comments along the lines of, "I would never let my kids go to Pelican Rapids because of the gangs."

Three students said peers in other districts have inquired if they're scared to go to school. Senior Jay Ripley was at a Rothsay truck stop recently with his cross-country teammates when a woman with a young child asked them if their school indeed had metal detectors. It does not.

Chief Stadum said the city doesn't have a gang problem and hasn't seen a shooting at least since he joined the force in 2001.

Superintendent Deb Wanek, who heard warnings about Pelican when she applied for her job from Fergus Falls two years ago, is baffled by these rumors: "I wonder if people associate minorities with different things they see on TV, such as gangs."

On the offensive

It's not that diversity doesn't pose challenges, officials say. After all, the district welcomes the occasional 14- or 15-year-old who barely speaks English and never had formal schooling. Students who've spent years in refugee camps are battling post-traumatic stress disorder.

And though all children mingle at Viking, in high school new Americans tend to stick together, and students split up by race at cafeteria tables.

But community concerns Worner outlines in his report are unwarranted, officials say - and might have hurt the schools.

Many in the district say a more decisive factor in the loss of students to neighboring schools is Pelican Rapids' location in the very center of a sprawling district surrounded by nine other districts.

For many parents, it's just more convenient to enroll their kids in another district. Concerns about the diversity play a smaller role, Moerke said, adding the town will never know how many families were scared off from settling here in the first place by gang rumors.

Johnson, the district parent, said concern about diversity surfaced at community forums in the build-up to last year's vote. A question asked each time was, "Why should I pay more so we can teach the children of immigrants how to read and speak English?"

But school officials attribute the levy failure to the economic downturn and the high percentage of second home owners in the district. Still, says Ripley, the high school senior: "I think misconceptions spread rumors. And I think that brought a negative vibe to the referendum, and it didn't help our schools."

Most agree, though, that the district should do something to dispel lingering concerns and promote diversity as an educational opportunity. Many immigrant students - such as one former refugee camp resident from Somalia who landed on the honor roll while working full time at the turkey plant - offer lessons in overcoming and resolve. They prepare their U.S.-born peers for the diversity they'll encounter in college and beyond.

The district, which gears up for a second levy vote in November, hopes to start a volunteer marketing task force that will talk up its merits. Administrators are thinking about posting footage of day-to-day activities and student writing on the school Web site.

In the meantime, students travel to neighboring districts to field questions as part of a 4-year-old program called Cultural Collaborative. Junior Fardowsa Duqow, from Somalia, is open to any questions. She explains why she wears the hijab. She tells them the Somali community is peace-loving and avoids fights.

"If they ask you questions, they'll find out Somali culture is not scary," she says. "They're getting to know you more."