Posted on August 24, 2004

Trend In Meatpacking Towns Raises Question Of ‘White Flight’

Emily Gersema and Paul Goodsell, Omaha World Herald, August 22, 2004

Every school day, Tim and Shelly Noonan load up their son Zachary to take him to school 10 miles away in Richland.

The drive from their Schuyler home will amount to 3,600 miles in a year, so they share rides with other families who also send children to Richland.

The miles are worth it, Tim Noonan says. Zachary, 7, is getting more one-on-one time with teachers at Richland’s small country school than he would in Schuyler’s crowded classrooms. Plus, instructors don’t have to teach in both Spanish and English, as in Schuyler.

“I don’t have anything against Hispanics,” said Noonan, who works as a supervisor alongside many Spanish-speaking immigrants at the local Excel Corp. packing plant. “It was an issue of progress.”

The Noonans represent a trend appearing in Nebraska schools with the highest proportions of Hispanic students.

Over the years, Spanish-speaking families have been drawn to the packing plants in Schuyler, Lexington, South Sioux City and Madison. Each has seen Hispanic enrollment skyrocket.

At the same time, white enrollment in the schools has dropped—as much as 50 percent.

The schools have had to balance the needs of diverse student populations. They must cope with burgeoning enrollment, even as some longtime residents and taxpayers feel less connected to their schools.

The loss of whites in Schuyler, Lexington, Madison and Sioux City raises questions about “white flight.”

“Race,” said Lexington Superintendent Richard Eisenhauer, “is an unspoken word” in discussions about adding classrooms.

Noonan is aware of that. Just talking about sending his boy to Richland could draw criticism from Hispanic plant workers and white residents who support Schuyler schools. “I have to live here,” he said.

Schuyler’s white enrollment fell 49 percent to 457 students from 1993 to 2003. Yet total enrollment went up 19 percent to 1,280 students because of an influx of Hispanic children.

Lexington and South Sioux City saw a similar shift. Madison’s enrollment, though, shrank 7 percent to 582, because it has fewer new Hispanic students.

Experts such as Omaha sociologist Lourdes Gouveia say many rural communities, not just those with packing plants and large Hispanic populations, are losing whites younger than 18.

On top of that, many white parents like the Noonans have used a state law permitting children to attend schools outside their home district.

Schuyler lost 76 children to other districts last year, while taking in 14—a pattern seen in the other districts.

It’s unclear why students left and where they went. The Nebraska Department of Education doesn’t collect that information; schools say they don’t know.

Still, some parents and school administrators say language and ethnic differences are driving some families to move their kids to neighboring districts.

Last year, 13 students who live in other districts went to Richland. A few were from Schuyler, said Judith Kabourek, the principal of Richland Public School.

Kabourek acknowledged that some Schuyler parents worry that “you have to spend a lot of time on language development.”

Parents also have other reasons for switching schools. Kabourek said one child said her parents sent her to Richland “because she thought the other kids (at Schuyler) didn’t like her.”

Danelle and Byron Marxsen of Schuyler will send their 5-year-old daughter, Kendra, to Richland kindergarten. Schuyler’s larger classes were intimidating, Danelle said, and she worried about bilingual classes.

“Teachers have to go so much slower and spend so much more time on stuff just because of the language barrier,” she said.

Schuyler Grade Schools Superintendent Jim DeBlauw said crowded classrooms probably are a key reason some parents send their children elsewhere.

“I’m sure there’s some prejudice involved,” he said.

Gouveia, a sociologist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said the loss of white students reflects a larger trend dating back nearly 40 years. The descendants of European immigrants began to leave rural communities in the late 1960s as farming changed. The exodus accelerated in the ‘80s as the farm economy buckled.

Gouveia, director of UNO’s Office of Latino/Latin American studies, said other factors influence the ethnic makeup of meatpacking towns and their schools:

• Young white people leave in search of better-paying jobs.

• Whites who stay in rural areas are generally older and no longer work or have children.

• Hispanics moving into rural areas tend to have more children than whites.

Some white families are moving to nearby towns where whites are the majority, census data show. Lexington lost 38 percent of its white population under age 18 in the 1990s. Meanwhile, nearby Gothenburg gained 7 percent more white children and Elwood 14 percent.

“These changes are going to be terribly important because the schools may suffer as the tax base deteriorates,” Gouveia said.

While Schuyler’s population growth has prevented it from becoming another rural ghost town, it has seen consequences.

Its grade school was designed for 500 children, but more than 800 are enrolled, forcing administrators to rely on temporary classrooms that look like mobile homes. The district also has had to hire more teachers—a task complicated by a statewide shortage and by its need for bilingual teachers.

Schuyler officials want a new and bigger building, but voters have rejected the proposal three times. Most of the residents who routinely vote in the community are older and white, while many Hispanic residents can’t vote because they aren’t citizens.

Rosalba Valerio and her family moved to Schuyler 10 years ago from California.

As the mother of two school-age children in Schuyler, she has been active on school issues. Yet she said many people like her who support raising property taxes to pay for school construction fail to vote.

That, plus objections to higher property taxes, have defeated the bond issue proposals to build a new school, she said.

But a few people have voted against the building proposal because of Hispanic students, Valerio said.

“I heard a lot of comments like, ‘Well, my kids are already out of here. Why would I pay for another ethnic group?’”

Lexington is likely to take up a bond issue this year to pay for new classrooms. Eisenhauer, the school superintendent, anticipates that it won’t be easy.

“We need to recognize that (race) could be a factor, as much as our heads and logic tell us that it shouldn’t be,” Eisenhauer said. “It would be terribly unfortunate if that would be an issue that would deny children the education they need.”