A dozen years ago, fewer than 1 in 5 La Crosse students was nonwhite. Today, that number is closer to 1 in 3.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, Western Wisconsin school districts including La Crosse, Westby, Arcadia and Sparta continue to see ethnic and racial diversity increase, following a statewide trend. Most of these districts are also seeing increasing student poverty, as the proportion of students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch programs is on the rise.
Twelve years ago, 38 percent of students were eligible for the lunch program in La Crosse, compared with nearly half of students in the district last year. Statewide, the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch peaked at 42 percent in 2013 and fell after that to 38 percent last year.
These changes bring challenges and opportunities to school districts, educators say. They say schools must continue work to be socially just, equitable and culturally responsive in order to provide a quality education to all students, regardless of background.
“When we talk about demographic changes, we have been rolling up our sleeves on the issue for a long time,” La Crosse Associate Superintendent of Instruction Troy Harcey said. “We have a rich tapestry in La Crosse and a very diverse student body.”
Last year, almost 10 percent of students in La Crosse identified as Asian, more than 5 percent as black, almost 4 percent as Hispanic, and almost 9 percent identified with two or more races. Along with different backgrounds, Harcey also said the district has to be aware of gender, poverty, ability and other characteristics.
Two years ago, districts participated in a social justice conference in Madison to improve how educators and staff are trained to work with students from different backgrounds.
The school district switched to an asset-based approach, Supervisor of Instruction and Staff Development Rob Tyvoll said, as part of a goal to provide equitable opportunities to students.
“We had to question the mindset about students of negative backgrounds and question those negative stereotypes,” he said. “With the change to asset-based thinking, we look for the potential and the positives and give students the opportunities to demonstrate that potential.”
Part of that work is discussions on identity, Tyvoll said, and tackling issues such as white privilege, which is defined by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a transparent preference for whiteness that saturates society and provides white people with unearned perks people of color do not enjoy.
Other work on identity includes district efforts to celebrate other cultures and groups through programs and events. The district also has a number of cultural liaisons who work with African American, Southeast Asian and other student subgroups.
Another way the district works to embrace different backgrounds is to create more responsive classroom systems. Instead of teachers as overlords, Tyvoll said, responsive learning designs include students in conversations about behavior and expectations, giving students a voice and allowing their views to be respected.
“If they are allowed to be part of the conversation and community, these things become much more meaningful,” Tyvoll said.
One school district that has seen an explosion in diversity is Arcadia, where the Hispanic population became the majority in 2015. While not as extreme, other rural school districts have also seen their Hispanic population rise as people move to the region for jobs, especially on dairy farms.
Changes in Sparta, Tomah
Almost 1 in 6 Sparta School District students is Hispanic or black, up from 1 in 20 during the 2015 school year. About half of the district’s students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a number that has spiked and fallen over the past 12 years.
To provide extra resources for Hispanic students, who make up 12 percent of the student body, Director of Pupil Services Peggy Jadack said the district works with community organizations such as Lugar de Reunion as well as adding additional teachers for English-language learners.
Regional economics is likely the driver of the need for free or reduced-price lunch in her district and others, she said. About 15 percent of residents in Monroe County and La Crosse County live under the poverty line, according to the most recent Census data, and that number jumps to nearly 20 percent in the city of Sparta and 24 percent in the city of La Crosse.
To help those kids, Sparta instituted a universal free breakfast program, as well as weekend food backpacks and a summer school lunch program. The district tries to be sensitive to student needs and works with community organizations to fill any gaps.
“We work hard with all parents and families to make sure kids have what they need to be successful,” Jadack said.
The numbers in the Tomah Area School District are similar to Sparta’s. Tomah superintendent Cindy Zahrte said the district’s students benefit from students of different ethic backgrounds.
“The reality is that our students live in a multicultural and global society,” Zahrte said. “Learning to be culturally competent is important, and having increased diversity in our schools helps our students learn to accept and appreciate differences among people, as well as acknowledge similarities. It is much harder to stereotype a person of a minority group if you are friends with a person of that minority group.”
Tomah High School has a Diversity Club, and the district’s character education program “supports values of kindness, caring, and respect and ... the importance of respecting all individuals and celebrating our differences.”
Zahrte is striving for a more diverse faculty.
“As our student population becomes more diverse, I believe a challenge we have is to find teachers and other staff members who also reflect that diversity,” she said. “We don’t have many individuals from minority groups applying for positions within our school district and ideally we would like to have such diversity in our teaching staff.”
At Onalaska, nearly 1 in 4 students identifies as nonwhite, and more than a quarter of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, down from 31 percent in 2012. Having a more diverse student population is good for the district, Superintendent Fran Finco said, as students will live and work in a world full of people from different backgrounds.
The district works to meet the school board’s goal that all students can achieve high levels of learning, he said. There are still challenges to overcome as the district has a large achievement gap between white and minority students and between rich and poor students.
On the most recent state tests, slightly more than 31 percent of poor students rated as proficient or advanced on the English language arts Forward exam compared with more than 60 percent of their richer peers. Only 21 percent of black students got a passing score on the test, compared with more than 66 percent of white students.
Finco said the district has to look at those who are struggling and get them the resources they need to succeed or excel. For poorer students who might not have books or parents who read to them at home, that might mean providing books they can take with them or providing programs to help parents gain these skills.
If a student doesn’t speak English as a first language, the district might have to provide more English-language learner support the district offers additional instructional time to students struggling in a subject such as math or reading. A number of schools in the district have food pantries and other programs that make sure kids aren’t going hungry at school, which can affect learning.
The district also has increased the number of support staff available. Ten years ago, Finco said, the district had 49 staff members dedicated to working with at-risk kids or those with special needs that number has nearly doubled to 87.
“We have to give them what they need to get up to that bar,” he said. “We have to come up with culturally responsive interventions so all students succeed.”
Zahrte said it takes more than a school district to ensure every students feels welcome and motivated to succeed.
“I think it is important to note that our entire community must take an active role in making non-white families feel welcome,” she said. “This is not just the responsibility of the schools.”
Tomah Journal editor Steve Rundio contributed to this story.
A look at the percentage of students who identify as nonwhite at a district in 2016 as well as the percentage of students who are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. Percent change is the change in the proportion since 2005. Data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
School District Percent Nonwhite Percent Change since 2005 Percent Low-income Percent Change since 2005
Arcadia District 58.62% 471.90% 63.99% 90.62%
Bangor 4.77% 79.32% 30.32% 33.80%
Black River Falls 30.48% 44.87% 45.17% 15.97%
Blair-Taylor 6.40% 77.29% 39.52% 18.39%
Cashton 14.22% 255.50% 38.73% -6.29%
De Soto 5.80% 203.66% 46.62% 46.47%
G-E-T 7.88% 282.52% 22.48% 14.40%
Holmen 13.59% 30.92% 25.08% 2.96%
Independence 37.98% 345.25% 55.04% 90.98%
La Crosse 28.67% 41.09% 46.73% 21.41%
La Farge 8.70% 66.67% 53.04% -2.18%
Melrose-Mindoro 11.26% 369.17% 40.58% 47.14%
Norwalk-Ontario 22.04% 161.14% 53.87% 36.17%
Onalaska 23.02% 68.64% 26.84% 28.98%
Prairie du Chien 5.80% 65.71% 54.89% 67.35%
Sparta 18.19% 191.97% 45.76% 13.30%
Tomah 14.46% 54.82% 41.66% 40.74%
Viroqua 5.90% 237.14% 40.09% 12.05%
West Salem 7.57% 86.91% 23.04% 40.15%
Westby 6.58% 204.63% 34.77% 29.50%
Whitehall 14.21% 388.32% 39.37% 27.74%