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Sioux Falls Not Watching Open-Enrollment Demographics for Inequality

In the Heads in the Sand Department, the Sioux Falls School District is not tracking demographics among its open-enrolling students to check for trends toward racial or income inequalities in student populations at its schools:

Superintendent Pam Homan said she can look across the two dozen elementary schools in the Sioux Falls district and see diversity in each one. As for schools such as Longfellow Elementary, where 76 percent of the students are nonwhite and 34 percent of the neighborhood kids who should be attending there open enroll somewhere else, "I don't worry about that," Homan said.

...School board president Doug Morrison said there are many reasons parents choose to open enroll. "I can't speak to open enrolling out of a school because of a certain demographic makeup," he said. "I haven't seen that trend here" [Steve Young, "School Choice Opens Questions in Sioux Falls," that Sioux Falls paper, 2014.03.30].

Parent and board member Kate Parker at least thinks there might be a problem:

"I don't have any hard evidence that we're sending our kids away from Longfellow because of demographics, but I can't imagine that it doesn't drive some people away," she said. "I think you see this migration of young families happening in our neighborhood, and I think some of them may be a little bit scared off by, I don't know, whether it's the diversity or the test scores because of that diversity" [Young, 2014.03.30].

Open enrollment isn't inherently racist or classist. Parker points to one of the benign reasons that diversity could correlate with higher out-enrollment. If I move into a town with more than one elementary school, my first urge is to enroll my daughter in the nearest school so we can walk there together each morning. However, if there are a couple schools nearby, or if there's another school near my work, I may want to compare test scores and send my daughter to the school that seems to produce the best results on paper. Since race and income appear to correlate with test scores, schools with more poor kids or more kids from other ethnic backgrounds, especially newcomers just learning English, will tend to have lower test scores. We thus will see some segment of open enrollers driving certain families toward certain schools that better fit the white corporate model of standardized, homogenized, industrialized education.

Dang. Even when we look for objective reasons to open enroll, we stumble upon racism and classism.

Space and resources permitting (we can't all send our kids to Rosa Parks for Spanish immersion), open enrollment in places like Sioux Falls offers parents and students reasonable liberty. If you see more educational opportunities for your kids at Washington than at Lincoln, that's fine. (My friends at Lincoln will say you're making a big mistake!) If you move into the Robert Frost neighborhood but you still want your kids to finish elementary with their friends at Laura Wilder, I have trouble coming up with a compelling state interest to say you can't.

But the state and the school district have a compelling interest in at least monitoring the exercise of that liberty to see if it unintentionally, unmaliciously, non-racistly leads to some sort of inequality that puts certain students and certain schools at disadvantages. We can't say that open enrollment promotes inequality, but we won't know if we aren't watching. Monitoring the demographic trends and impacts of open enrollment wouldn't mean we're out to stop open enrollment or implement forced busing, but it would provide the data we need to identify problems and design solutions.


  1. Donald Pay 2014.03.30

    We took advantage of open enrollment when my daughter was looking to enroll in Rapid City schools. We sought out schools that were both close to home/work and had good diversity and good teaching. We were lucky to have several elementary teachers as friends, so they could tell us the pluses and minuses of schools. I think you can overemphasize test scores. What counts is that teachers have the ability to individualize instruction, while keeping classroom discipline. That usually takes a more experienced teacher.

  2. Douglas Wiken 2014.03.30

    The federal government should be funding all costs for both legal immigrants and illegal aliens since it is failing to control immigration and enforcing deportation.

  3. Nichole Colsch 2014.03.30

    We open enroll both of our children into the Rosa Parks Spanish Immersion program that you mention. We drive them across town from our home in the Robert Frost district, and have been deeply impressed with the quality of the education our children are receiving. Our son is a member of the pilot class, now in fifth grade. I'll be brutally honest, though, when we first enrolled him, I had hoped his "global studies" school would turn into a school more true to its mission. As a former educator who realizes the importance of a rich and diverse social and language environment in the early years, I never understood why there wasn't a more concerted effort to house the resources of the Spanish immersion program within a school with a high-needs ESL student population. To my mind, such an arrangement would take advantage of a natural crossover, with both Spanish immersion teachers and regular English classroom teachers addressing a similar task of teaching children whose native language does not match that of the instructor. I also imagined that such an arrangement would result in our students being exposed to more native Spanish speakers among the student population, a byproduct that could only positively impact their early acquisition of this second language. This is not to say that Rosa Parks isn't a diverse school; it is, thankfully, but having been involved in the program this long, I have also watched it evolve into a program with some VERY vocal and involved parents (I believe two SI parents are now on the school board) who I believe would, rather unfortunately, reject the idea of such a merger of these two populations. Socio-economic factors being what they are, it is very difficult for parents who seek the advantages of an elite magnet program such as this one to square those desires with the logic of housing the "haves" with the "have nots" under one school building roof. Next year, this pilot class of students will head to Edison Middle School, which will also be fed by students from All-City Elementary and the Challenge Center (two other high parental involvement, magnet programs). I imagine test scores will be quite solid, but I already witness the anxiety and parental competition involved in getting sixth graders placed into advanced classes and selective school programs--a dynamic I can only imagine will intensify in the coming years, given the intended makeup of the Edison student body. Without question, I would choose to enroll my kids in the SI program again, were I given the choice, since they are now fluently bilingual and bi-literate at ages 8 & 11, but I often wonder, somewhat wistfully, what synergy might have emerged if this program had been allowed to dovetail with ESL programs in one of the higher needs elementary schools in town.

  4. Jenny 2014.03.30

    I wouldn't have my child in a school that wasn't diverse. I want my child to meet and become friends with children of all backgrounds and ethnicities. I didn't get that growing up in my tiny, very white, hometown in Middle of Nowhere SD, and so meeting people and their cultures from all around the world is a class lesson in itself for my daughter, and is preparing her for the real world when she grows up.
    I wish I could have had that experience when I was growing up!
    Yes, way too much emphasis is placed on test scores. My child currently attends a very diverse school and test scores aren't the highest, but that is not of utmost importance to me. I have been impressed with the teachers and principal that are very hardworking and dedicated.

  5. Troy 2014.03.31


    The reason you aren't seeing as many Hispanic students @ Rosa Parks is THEIR parental choice. They know Spanish. They want their children to master English and not help your kids learn Spanish. They want the ELL (not ESL) services to master English in an English only environment vs. a place where good Spanish is to be praised.

    Another thing, language is only one aspect of culture. Having a class with a Nepalese child will expose one to elephants not as cute animals but instruments of terror. Having a class with a Sudanese student will expose one to ethnic cleansing as routine as a winter blizzard. Having a class with a Burmese student will expose you to families who have no sense of our community schools as they had been "mountain people" and education is a home activity.

    Now to my final point, I am not in general one who praises Homan. However, I subscribe to the principle "Don't ask a question if it won't change anything you do or don't do." The Sioux Falls school district is very, very far from perfect. The only thing I think they do great is giving our first generation Americans a great environment for succeeding. And, frankly I couldn't care less if it adversely impacts the children who have inherent advantages fighting to get into Edison.

  6. Nichole Colsch 2014.03.31


    Semantics of educational acronyms aside, I would posit that the primary reason there are not more Hispanic students at Rosa Parks is that the make-up of the neighborhood surrounding Rosa Parks is not as heavily Hispanic as other parts of the city. (Incidentally, there are a fair number of Hispanic students at Rosa Parks who are learning English in the English-only classrooms that make up 60% of our school, and whose parents appreciate the opportunity to send their children to a school where their kids can both learn in English and feel that their first language is an asset useful to them in both public and private spheres, instead of something to be abandoned once they leave home).

    I also want to clarify that my intent in examining the role of Rosa Parks as a "global studies" school in our community is not primarily out of interest for what might have benefitted my children in improving their Spanish, but a recognition that it only seems logical to me to place teachers who both face a similarly daunting task of teaching students whose first language does not match their own in close proximity to one another. Teachers learn from one another in the same way children do, and it would seem that effective teaching techniques involved in language immersion education are effective regardless of the target language.

    As far as the three magnet programs simultaneously feeding Edison Middle School is concerned, again my concern isn't that my own children face some kind of hyper-competitive environment (Indeed, this is a good thing in many ways), it is a question of what drove the decision to concentrate these three programs under one roof instead of "spreading the wealth" among a wider range of middle schools. Given my experience with the parents in this program, I am confident a decision to feed the Spanish Immersion program into Axtell Park or Whittier would have been met with considerable consternation and blowback from parent groups, and I find this dynamic unfortunate.

    Having worked in education for 19 years, several of those years teaching adult ESL students (who were, like their children, BOTH English Language Learners and learning English as a Second Language), I know that the drive to learn the predominant language of the America power structure is incredibly strong, as it should be. I also know that the desires of those who move here speaking a first language other than English are far more complex than "They just want to learn English." Yes, the vast, vast majority DO want to learn English, and to learn it well in order to access the opportunities and privileges that English fluency affords in our culture. Some desire this to the point of actively working to help their children eliminate their first language. A good deal more desire to keep the first language active in the home while learning the English language for use in the public sphere. And some recognize the fact that language-learning is not a zero-sum game and realize that teaching their children to be fluent and literate in as many languages as possible will only be a benefit in our global economy. (Local Mandarin speakers, for example, send their children to English speaking public schools, but run a private Mandarin academy on the weekends to assure that their children learn to write and speak well in their first language as well.) In other words, your presumption that non-English speaking families want to send their kids to "English-only" speaking schools is both an overgeneralization of the desires of a diverse and complex segment of our society, it is, by its very nature, a factual unreality. The students in the "English-only" schools that serve our immigrant populations are exposed to a wider variety and richer diversity of languages in twenty minutes on the playground everyday than the lion's share of students in our local "global studies" school ever will be -- and this, I believe, is an unfortunate, but calculated, irony.

    As to the idea that children in diverse classrooms will inevitably learn about some of the harsher realities of the immigrant experience, I would agree with you wholeheartedly. On balance, however, I think the potential benefits may eventually outweigh the challenges associated with those tough lessons. A friend of mine, for example, attended elementary school in an incredibly diverse, but underprivileged part of New Jersey as a child. This experience not only created in him a deep curiosity about those with whom he did not share cultural and linguistic heritage, it also exposed him, early on, to an array of languages that led to his fluency, as an adult, in nine different languages and functional knowledge of nearly twenty more. Did he learn a few tough things about the realities of immigrant life? I'm quite sure he did. Over the long haul, though, I'm quite confident he would count that as part of the larger blessing he experienced in learning, early on, that what is different is not necessarily to be feared, and that we can learn from those with whom we may not share history.

    Just my two cents (or more!), of course. I appreciate opportunity for such a civil debate on this issue. Having been accused of being "un-American" and "unpatriotic" (among other significantly less savory labels) for sending my kids to a school where, every day, they recite the Pledge of Allegiance in more than one American language, it's a welcome change of pace to feel like someone is rationally engaged instead of shouting.

  7. Troy 2014.03.31


    A lot of my reaction is I've known of Rosa Parks parents who wanted to move ELL to Rosa for Hispanic kids despite Hispanic parents who opposed. The reasoning of those parents for the move was it was good for their kids without regard to the interest of the Hispanic kids and their parents view.

  8. larry kurtz 2014.03.31

    Spanish and not Lakota? How South Dakota.

  9. Megan Konz 2014.03.31

    As a parent of a SI student, I disagree with this assessment: "Given my experience with the parents in this program, I am confident a decision to feed the Spanish Immersion program into Axtell Park or Whittier would have been met with considerable consternation and blowback from parent groups, and I find this dynamic unfortunate."

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