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Diversity is survival: Eagle Grove, Belmond-Klemme proud of growing Hispanic communities

According to Eagle Grove Community Schools Superintendent Jess Toliver, a growing, diverse population is a blessing.

“Diversity has been good for our school system in terms of survival,” Toliver said.  “Without diversity, I am not sure we would have a high school, as many businesses on Main Street or the economic activity and growth we have going on right now.”

The district has had incidents where people from its own schools have have made inappropriate comments, according to Toliver, but those incidents have been addressed. 

CORA HOLLAND, Forest City High School 

Noah Miller applies pressure to Eagle Grove on Nov. 28. 

With any incident, Eagle Grove refers to the student handbook and school policy.

“We have had incidents, but racially insensitive comments are not a major issue,” Toliver said.

When two Forest City radio employees' racist comments went viral Monday, Eagle Grove, a growing, diverse community with more changes coming in the near future, was shoved into the spotlight.

Orrin Harris and Holly Jane Kusserow-Smidt were fired from KIOW. Kusserow-Smidt also resigned her position as a third-grade teacher at Forest City Schools. 

More specifically, Eagle Grove and the high school boys basketball team was the focus of a negative take on a growing Hispanic population.


Dalton Schaffer, 19, graduated from Eagle Grove last year and played with Spencer Espejo, Enzo Gebara and Nikolas Padilla, the three players mentioned in an online streaming system for local high school sports. 

“I was really good friends with them through my high school career," Schaffer said.  

Schaffer attended Tuesday’s home game against Belmond-Klemme.

Though the Eagles trailed early, they maintained composure and continued to support each other, bumping fists and showcasing special handshakes.

On a basketball team, it doesn't matter what your last name sounds like, whether it’s English, Norwegian, Italian or Hispanic. What matters is playing for your school and, hopefully, winning.

CHRIS ZOELLER, The Globe Gazette 

Eagle Grove's Dalton Schaffer finishes sixth with a time of 17:34.2 during the Top of Iowa Conference cross country meet at North Iowa Area Community College in Mason City in October 2015. 

“You play for Eagle Grove, you don't play for the name on the back of your jersey, you play for your school,” Schaffer said.

Like most high school jerseys, Eagle Grove's uniforms do not have names on the back, just numbers. 

Fans on Tuesday used many words to describe the players: kids, boys, young men, by number, by first name, students, a team, a family, Eagles. No one described them by the color of their skin or their racial or ethnic background.  

“Eagle Grove is a real class act,” Schaffer said. “A team is a team, doesn't matter where you’re from.”

Schaffer interacted with the players during warm-ups and during halftime. Though they’re all friends, he talked about how great the teammates are -- almost like a proud father would describe his children.

“All great young men,” Schaffer said. “I try to come to as many home games, not just basketball, as I can to support them.”

An evolving community

Dina Figueroa of Eagle Grove has kids in the school system. She frequently attends home basketball games to support the kids.

Though she hadn’t heard the recording, she said racist and ignorant comments are hurtful.  

“I am Hispanic as well,” Figueroa said. “Here at the school, we have a lot of diversity, we have a lot of Hispanics.”

Figueroa noted that the Hispanic population in Eagle Grove has increased since she moved to town more than 14 years ago.

CHRIS ZOELLER, The Globe Gazette 

Dina Figueroa of Eagle Grove, left, cheers on the Eagle Grove boys basketball team Tuesday in their game against Belmond-Klemme.

According to the U.S. Census, the Hispanic population in Eagle Grove increased by nearly 7 percent in a decade, jumping from 2 percent in 2000 to 8.9 percent in 2010. Eagle Grove’s population of more than 3,400 is expected to grow when Prestage's hog processing facility becomes operational in summer 2018. 

“In terms of an influx, we really have not had a huge influx; our district has just become more diverse over time,” said Figueroa, who has worked for the district for nine years. 

“When I started, we had one part-time ELL (English Language Learners) associate. Now we have 2.5 teachers and three associates dedicated to ELL, so the population has grown. But a lot of our students start with us as kindergarteners and grow up within the system.”

Figueroa said she likes the community, where she has not seen or experienced anything like the comments made by the Forest City radio employees. 

She noted the difference as she discussed moving from California to Eagle Grove. 

“I think there could be some racist people here; I’ve gone through it myself,” Figueroa said. “You would never think that all you would see would be white.”

Her daughter attended Eagle Grove schools from kindergarten to 12th grade. In that time, she noted that there was a great deal of acceptance of diversity in the school and community.

Schaffer, the Eagle Grove graduate, believes diversity at Eagle Grove helped prepare him for his future education and adult life. He attends Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge and runs cross country and track.

“I’ve gotten to learn so many things from people that I never would have gotten the chance to if I didn't open up and talk to everybody and treat everyone the same,” Schaffer said. “Being in Eagle Grove helped that.”  

A nearby example

The Hispanic population in Belmond, a city of more than 2,300 people 35 miles northeast of Eagle Grove, increased from 5.6 percent to 12.1 percent in 10 years, according to census figures. 

Belmond-Klemme Schools is about 25 percent Hispanic, officials say. 


“We have noticed, over the years, that influx has increased,” ELL teacher Claudia Guerrero said. “We do our best to accommodate.”

The school ensures there is personnel to assist families during registration and throughout the school year.

Important school documents are translated into the parents' or guardians' native language, and translators are available for meetings. The assistance is fairly new.

Guerrero’s husband moved to Belmond in the '90s and was one of the first Latinos to graduate from Belmond in 2001.

“We can see the difference in school procedure and access that he didn't have then,” Guerrero said.

Guerrero helps with diversity training in the school. The training varies from building to building and covers different types of diversity, including religion and race. 

The school district has found success in addressing diversity and acceptance in elementary school.

“By the time they get to middle or high school, they are used to it,” Guerrero said. “By then, bilingual students and staff are part of normal life.”

CHRIS ZOELLER, The Globe Gazette 

Belmond-Klemme's Gustav Suarez finishes first in his heat of the 400 meter dash at the Indian Relays in Forest City in April 2017. 

School counselor Barbra Kozisek said discrimination or racial insensitivity is not tolerated.

In her five years at Belmond-Klemme, Kozisek said racism has not been a big issue in the school, and credits that to education.

“If something is said, we’ll pull students in for conflict resolution,” Kozisek said.

Conflict resolution practices apply regardless of whether a comment or action was made based on race, religion, politics or any other issue, Kozisek said. Respect is key.


Kozisek also comes from an area where diversity was normal.

“I grew up in California, and that’s just the way it was,” she said.

Superintendent Dan Frazier said issues at sporting events or between schools are addressed between superintendents.


“Like the Forest City incident, those things are not backed up by school officials nor tolerated,” Frazier said.

Student Representative to the School Board Stefany Naranjo, a senior, said administrators have set the tone for what is and isn't acceptable behavior at home games and sporting events.

Teachers, principals and others are at the games to keep an eye on things, she said.

“They make sure to shut it down if they see inappropriate behavior,” Naranjo said. “Students are, should be, aware of what’s right and wrong.”

Naranjo is involved with the Latinos Al Exito group, a program that provides counseling and encourages further education through college visits and more.

She feels that the school has embraced diversity.


“In the classroom, you can see the non-Hispanic students learning Spanish in class and trying to make friends and communicate with Hispanic students,” Naranjo said. “Having the experience of working with people of different backgrounds and cultures has really helped.”

Storm Lake

Storm Lake, a northwest Iowa town with a population of 10,600, experienced a significant increase in population and diversity from 1990 to 2000, spurred by packing plants. Nearly 30 languages are spoken in the town, which was once mostly home to white residents. 

Sara Huddleston, a former Storm Lake City Council member, was the first Hispanic woman elected to public office in Iowa. 


“Over time, individuals from all over the world have moved to our small rural town in the middle of nowhere,” Huddleston said.

In Storm Lake, the minority is becoming the majority, Huddleston said.

“You can see it by looking at the line of traffic coming from the surrounding area at 8 o’clock in the morning to come to work,” she said. “Neighborhoods are mixed with people from Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Mexicans, African-Americans and, lately, the Cubans that are moving from Miami, Florida and Cuba.”

Compared to the early '90s, Huddleston said the community is handling diversity well.

“People are friendlier, more welcoming, more tolerant, more open,” Huddleston said. “I can’t not speak for everyone, because I believe that there are likely still some individuals with closed minds and fear of the unknown.”

Her advice to growing communities embracing a more diverse population is to be uplifting to people rather than putting them down. A monthly diversity roundtable to discuss issues facing the community can also be beneficial.

File photo 

Eagle Grove Superintendent Jess Toliver speaks to Hunter Martinez, 7, left, and Eddy Yackle, 6, in July 2016. 

“Encourage your local public officials to be tolerance activists,” Huddleston said. “Encourage law enforcement agencies to establish diversity training for all officers, to utilize community-based policing and to eliminate the use of inequitable tactics, like racial profiling.”

The most important thing people can do is to recognize his or her own biases and learn how to deal with them or at least to learn how to tolerate others, she said.

Huddleston said trust has become an issue within the immigrant community since Donald Trump became president, fearing unpredictability with immigration laws. 

“The environment has changed for sure,” Huddleston said. “Some people feel they can express bigotry openly and not hide it anymore. It’s an open door for opportunities to humiliate or hurt somebody else.”

Huddleston believes the recent comments at the Forest City-Eagle Grove basketball game are an example of that mentality.

Toliver, the Eagle Grove superintendent, said incidents like the video almost never happen in his district. He's confident Eagle Grove is better because of its diversity and that the community can handle the challenges ahead.

“People in general know not to make racist or insensitive remarks,” Toliver said. “Just as sports can build character, it can also expose it. In the heat of the moment, true character will often show.”

Cheer Fund
Cheer Fund

A Charles City woman is looking for some financial relief from the Christmas Cheer Fund for her family over the holidays.

The woman, 42, is the primary caregiver for her husband, who was diagnosed with cancer this year, and her 13-year-old son, who has a rare inherited disorder. Both diagnoses require expensive doctor’s appointments, procedures and medications.

“There is no money for us to have a good Christmas this year,” she said in her application.

Because of her husband’s and her son’s diagnoses, the woman hasn’t been working, so she can care for them.

According to an application note, her husband is in remission, while her son is in Stage 2 of liver failure.

The woman, whose family has received funding in the past, said she would use the money to buy gifts, including a couple new outfits, for her son and buy the fixings for a Christmas meal with what’s remaining.

“If (there isn’t any money remaining), that’s OK just as long as our son has some gifts to open for Christmas,” she wrote.

Family of 6 struggles

It has been a “very rough year” for a Mason City family, and its hoping the Christmas Cheer fund can brighten the holidays.

The family of six, including four dependent children between 2 and 17, is financially strapped this year because the mother is unemployed due to an injury and the father, a veteran, has post-traumatic stress disorder and “physical woes,” according to the application.

“I have no means to give my children any kind of Christmas as there is no income,” the applicant, 50, wrote.

The applicant said the family is still “patiently waiting” on a decision on her husband’s disability benefits.

In the meantime, one of the couple’s daughters has helped the family stay afloat by paying bills.

“It’s embarrassing to be in this position, but the doctor will not release me to go back to work yet,” the applicant wrote.

She said her children are too old for Toys for Tots, so seeking assistance from the Cheer Fund is her family’s only option.

If granted funding, the family will use it to purchase groceries, bathroom necessities and stocking-stuffers, the application said.

Not enough 'for Christmas dinner'

Medical expenses are making this Christmas difficult for one Hampton man, who is asking the Christmas Cheer Fund for assistance.

The 54-year-old man, who receives Social Security Disability Insurance, said most of his money goes to purchasing medicine for his medical situation every month.

“I don’t have enough money for Christmas dinner,” he said.

According to his application, his medical situation has caused his legs to swell and requires him to wear compression stockings. The veins around his heart are blocked after bypass surgery he underwent in the late 1990s.

If he receives a gift card from the Cheer Fund, he said it will be used to purchase food for Christmas dinner.

Household needs for children

A Mason City mother and her adult daughter are hoping the Christmas Cheer Fund can help ease their financial woes over the holidays.

A 53-year-old woman said her 28-year-old daughter, who has three children between 3 and 14 years old, moved in with her this year after her hours were cut at work due to health issues.

“I am disabled and live on disability,” the applicant wrote.

If the woman, who has received funding in the past, is granted assistance this year, she said it’d be used for gifts and “anything needed for the kids, household wise.”

'This time of year is hard'

A Rockford mother is hoping the Christmas Cheer Fund can assist her in bringing happiness to her children over the holidays.

The woman, 31, and her husband, 37, are the parents of four children between 3 and 10 years old.

“Just wanna say thank you,” her application said. “This time of year is hard.”

She said her hours were cut at work and with bills needing to be paid, “money is tight” this year.

“Just wanna see the kids smile when they get up on Christmas,” the application said.

If she receives a gift card from the Cheer Fund, she said it’d be used for gifts for the children and warm clothes.

Mother battles cancer

A Mason City woman battling cancer has turned to the Christmas Cheer Fund for assistance.

The woman, 36, and her husband, 27, have three children between 5 and 13 years old, and because of her diagnosis, the family is “really struggling with food and bills.”

“I know that there is only so much funding for this program, but if there is any information that you could send our way about programs that could assist us that would be great,” the application said.

The woman, whose family has received funding in the past, said if granted money from the Cheer Fund, it’d be used for clothing, food and gifts.

While Iowa pushes STEM, job growth mostly in technology

Iowa’s state government since 2011 has collaborated with Iowa businesses and educators to encourage students of all ages to pursue courses and careers in STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The state spends more than $5 million annually on its STEM program, which has been spearheaded by Kim Reynolds, when she was former Gov. Terry Branstad’s lieutenant, and now as governor.

The goal, according to the state, is to increase student interest in STEM subjects and fields in order to improve Iowa’s workforce and educational system.

However, some experts are concerned that the push toward STEM careers may be too broad, that most STEM fields do not have enough jobs available, or that growth is faster in some of the fields than others.

Some experts think STEM should be more focused on the "T" than the other letters; technology jobs are growing faster than careers in the other fields, according to national and Iowa labor data.

Despite the data, Iowa educators and the governor’s administration remain steadfast in their belief that fostering students’ interest in STEM subjects and careers remains an effective way to educate the state’s young people and prepare them for the workforce here.

“We’re kind of answering the bell, and the bell that rallied the launch of STEM in 2011 is that the economy of our state depends on inspiring enough kids to enter these fields to replace the retires and expand (the workforce),” said Dr. Jeff Weld, executive director of the Iowa Governor’s STEM advisory council and an associate professor of biology and science education at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. “That’s our calling and that’s our challenge. I’ll be the first to stand up and rally the troops around the STEM imperative.”

The top 10 most desired skills in workers are computer skills, and in the decade ending in 2024, 73 percent of STEM job growth will be in computer occupations, while just 3 percent will be in the physical sciences and 3 percent in the life sciences, according to a recent report on the New York Times’ website.

While all American students should have a working knowledge of science and math, it may be misleading to suggest the country faces a shortage of STEM workers, an expert on science education and policy told the Times.

“When it gets generalized to all of STEM, it’s misleading,” said Michael S. Teitelbaum, a senior research associate in the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. “We’re misleading a lot of young people.”

Iowa-level job data, from the state’s workforce development department, combines computer and math jobs, so the two cannot be analyzed separately within an examination of STEM careers. The other STEM fields in state-level jobs data are in two more combined fields: engineering and architecture jobs, and life, physical and social science jobs.

The combined field of computer and math jobs is projected to grow more than the other two STEM-related fields in Iowa, according to the state data, both in total job openings and new job openings.

By 2024, there will be more than 1,000 job openings in the computer and math fields. There will be just more than 600 engineering and architecture jobs and just more than 500 science jobs, according to the state data.

State officials said a well-rounded approach to STEM remains the proper course for educating students and preparing workers.

“The goal of the governor’s STEM advisory council is increasing student interest and achievement in STEM. Gov. Reynolds is passionate about advancing that mission,” Brenna Smith, the governor’s spokeswoman, wrote in an emailed response to bureau questions. “It is critical so students can pursue good-paying STEM careers, which in turn are vital to spurring innovation and job creation.”

Smith said the STEM program will help the administration meets its goal of getting 70 percent of the state’s workforce to have post-high school education or training by 2025. That effort is to fill what employers say is a middle skills gap: a lack of workers with the skills necessary to perform jobs in manufacturing, health care and skilled trades.

Educators said even if students receive education in a STEM field, that education will prepare them for life in a non-STEM occupation, should a job more directly to their field not be available.

Mark McDermott, the University of Iowa’s STEM coordinator, said he considers his job to improve STEM learning and teaching for all students, kindergarten through college, not necessarily to push them into STEM careers.

“Not so much as a specific way to push students into STEM careers in general or specific STEM careers, but more generally to develop STEM-literate students who could, if interested, pursue further STEM learning and at least be prepared to enter STEM careers if they choose,” McDermott said. “In this way, I would argue we can meet the needs of all students, both those who want to pursue STEM careers and those who may not but will still potentially need to make real-life decisions that are related to STEM fields or STEM concepts.”

STEM studies develop critical thinking and prepare students for emerging jobs and careers that they may not otherwise be considering, McDermott said.

“I guess my main point would be STEM education would be critical for all students,” he said.

Weld said reports that suggest there are more STEM graduates than STEM jobs available miss the ultimate point of STEM studies. He said the job categories in government data do not always align well with STEM jobs; some STEM graduates go on to further study rather than straight into the workforce; and that it’s not uncommon for any professional field — not just STEM careers — to have more graduates than jobs available.

And pushing a student straight from a STEM education to a STEM career is not necessarily the ultimate goal, Weld said.

“STEM has become this transcendent concept that’s more about transdisciplinary study,” Weld said. “The concept of a STEM field leading to a STEM job is kind of archaic.”