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Willmar benefits and faces challenges with its minority students

Meghan Weiss, from left, Ava Brogren, Shaleya Morales, Brooklyn Mueske and Alisae Ramirez take turns reading their lines in a short play in their third-grade classroom at Roosevelt Elementary School in Willmar. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

Willmar Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard often visits elementary classrooms to read to the kids.

Part of the fun for him is looking at all the different faces, he said recently.

About 44 percent of the district’s students come from ethnic or racial minority groups. That’s 1,804 of the district’s 4,135 students. The most prevalent groups are Latinos and Somalis. The district has smaller numbers of students of Native American or Asian Pacific heritage.

The kids in the classrooms are all pretty similar, Kjergaard said recently. They are enthusiastic and involved in what’s going on in their classrooms.

“They’re the kids we’ve got, and they’re my kids,” he said in his office recently. “I just want what’s best for them.”

Having a large number of minority students brings both advantages and challenges for the district, Kjergaard said.

The students from different cultural backgrounds “give our schools a certain vitality,” Kjergaard said.

“I think when our kids go off to college, they are better prepared to interact with other cultures because of Willmar,” he said. “It makes our kids better able to handle differences.”

Without minority students, the district would be substantially smaller, Kjergaard said, and that would mean fewer academic opportunities and fewer activities.

Most state aid is based on enrollment, 1,000 fewer kids takes more than $5 million out of the annual budget.

“There are challenges, too, because a lot of them don’t have the English language skills we would like them to,” he added.

The district is about to revamp its English Language Learner program to try to reach more kids. About 18 percent of the student population — 750 kids — need help learning English.

In the case of some young Somali refugees, they do not speak English and may have never been to school before arriving in Willmar.

“It’s got to be a struggle for them to come here,” he said, because the entire culture is so different.

In the past, the district saw large numbers of Latino youngsters who needed to learn English. While that’s still true in some cases, many Latino children coming to school now were born here and speak English.

Kjergaard said he expects the transition and adjustment of immigrants to progress over time as a new generation is born in this country and becomes more accustomed to the language and the social norms.

“I think as time goes by, we’re going to see more young minority students participate in activities,” he said. Graduation rates have been rising in recent years, and that should continue, too, he said.

What parents want for their kids isn’t that different across cultures, Kjergaard said.

“The Somali parents, the Latino parents and the white parents all want their kids to go to a safe school and get a quality education,” he said.

“Parents really only want what’s best for their kids,” he added.

“I think the majority population needs to remember that they want the same things they wanted when my relatives came over here from Norway and Denmark,” he said.

The schools and the community would be very different without the minority population and probably offer less opportunity for everyone, Kjergaard said.

“What would Willmar look like without Somalis and Latinos,” Kjergaard said. “What would this community look like without my 1,804 students? What would it look like without their parents?”

Willmar schools by the numbers

Percentage of minorities by school building: Jefferson Learning Center, 54 percent; Kennedy Elementary, 50 percent; Roosevelt Elementary, 50 percent; Willmar Middle School, 42 percent; Willmar Senior High, 34 percent; Area Learning Center, 74 percent; Prairie Lakes School, 56 percent.

Percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals: 56 percent, more than 2,300 students.

Percentage of students with special needs: 14 percent, nearly 600 students.

Graduation rates in 2010: 92 percent overall; 99 percent of whites; 73 percent of minorities; 61 percent of blacks; 78 percent of Hispanics; 79 percent of free/reduced lunch students.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340