Rural Schools in Marathon County See Expansion in Cultural Diversity

Written by Dr. Kelly Kapitz

For many years, cultural diversity in rural Wisconsin meant asking if your great-grandparents came from Germany, Poland, or Ireland. But the heritage of families in rural communities in Marathon County has changed dramatically in the last 10 years — and even more so in the last 5 years. One significant example of this change can be seen in Abbotsford.

Abbotsford School District signage.  (Photo courtesy of Abbotsford School District.)

The Abbotsford School District has been experiencing the greatest growth of Hispanic families in our region. In 2000, the Hispanic student population was just 10% of the total school enrollment. Today, Hispanic students in Abbotsford represent 51% of the total student body.

Hispanic student enrollment by district. (Graph courtesy of Kelly Kaptiz using 2018 enrollment data from WISEdash.)

The shift in enrollment has resulted in an increase in students identified as English language learners (ELL). In 2005, ELL students represented just 14% of students; in 2018, they represent 34%.

This shift in cultural makeup has posed several challenges to the school and community.

cheryl baker
Cheryl Baker

Cheryl Baker, Superintendent of the Abbotsford School District, and her staff have embarked on a multiyear plan to support students in their school. The district has created dual immersion classrooms in kindergarten and hired several bilingual teachers, school counselors, aides, and staff to support the children and their families. Baker herself is a bilingual administrator and former Spanish teacher who has embraced the effort to move her district toward a fully culturally responsive educational experience, saying:

“I think that families move to our school because of the educational opportunities for students and their families. They are in search of cultural belonging, employment, and business opportunities. I think they find that in our school and community.”

Abbotsford School District has had to re-imagine other aspects of school functioning and has paid particular attention to areas like:

  • Food service
  • Universal 4K–12 breakfast opportunities
  • Before- and afterschool programs
  • Access to interpreter services for families

Parent–teacher conferences are impacted when a family doesn’t speak the language or has to have their children or an interpreter share information.

There are also challenges to the population growth in general. With more families moving to the area, the district has struggled with finding educational space, locating qualified staff to support the students, and obtaining the necessary financial resources.

Recently, Abbotsford School District was highlighted in a Here and Now news segment on Wisconsin Public Television (WPT), pointing out the lack of State funding for ELL students. Click here to view the enlightening 8-minute news segment.

Screen capture from WPT’s April 12, 2019, Here and Now segment: “State Budget: English Language Learners.”

Marathon County Special Education has been working closely with the Abbotsford School District to ensure that students who need specially designed instruction are appropriately placed and receiving necessary services. Sometimes students fail to make academic progress and they are misidentified as being learning disabled simply because of a language barrier. It’s a disservice to our students and their families to place them in special education with a suspected disability if they don’t have a true delay in learning and simply can’t speak the language.

Language barriers extend beyond the classroom. According to Tony Gonzalez, owner of E.A.G. Interpreters, outreach materials put out in Spanish are an important step in connecting Abbotsford’s Hispanic families to services and employment and to help them better navigate the community. He’d like to see promotions in Spanish for informational workshops to inform community members about resources like Birth to Three programs, school supports, and other family services. According to Gonzalez:

“From what I have seen while interpreting with the Birth to Three program [in Abbotsford], there is a need for the community to know that a program such as this exists. People in the Hispanic community do not have the necessary information to inquire about services.

 One of the greatest obstacles is to make this segment of the community feel trust toward anything that is associated with government…. Legal status is obviously a concern; however, there needs to be a knowledge that these services are provided for young children who were born here in the U.S. — without any ‘risks.’”

Collectively, rural schools have been working together to address the growing population of Hispanic students by sharing expertise and resources or contracting out for support through private entities such as E.A.G. Interpreters.

In the fall, Abbotsford and several of the neighboring districts will be engaging in a multiday training to help staff further develop the skills to provide needed services. The training will include how to assess Hispanic students who may need special education supports, how to communicate effectively with Hispanic parents, and how to provide appropriate instructional strategies for this student population.

Abbotsford School District’s extra efforts have clearly resulted in:

  • A more ethnically rich environment
  • Improved instructional practices to meet the learning needs of students
  • Increased literacy outcomes for students
  • A reduction in the cultural divide
Abbotsford Students of the Month
Several students of the month at Abbotsford Elementary. (Photo courtesy of Abbotsford School District Facebook page.)

The broader community has also experienced several benefits from the ethnic shift. The downtown areas, which had been slowly disappearing, are now more vibrant with Hispanic-owned businesses. In addition, employers (such as Abbyland Foods) are able to fill vacancies, and new traditions are being shared with the community as a whole.

*  *  *

You have it hand it to the teachers in our rural Marathon County School Districts . . .

When the demographics of their community changed and some students had difficulties  learning, they adapted their teaching methods. Teaching students when English is their second language can be a challenge, but our teachers working closely with the students and their parents — found ways to break through the language and cultural barriers to achieve academic success.

What has been the key to it all?

The answer lies in understanding that every child — regardless of ethnic background, disability, or family income learns differently.  Success in Abbotsford School District has been found in connecting with students as individuals, in adjusting teaching methods to best engage each child, and in teaching with great heart and compassion.

KellyKapitzKelly Kapitz, PhD

Director  |  Marathon County Special Education Department

Dr. Kelly Kapitz has been involved in rural education for over 30 years. She began her career as a school psychologist and later entered administration as a Director of Special Education and Pupil Services for the Marathon County Special Education Department. She received her PhD in Education Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her dissertation and particular area of interest is transition services to students with disabilities. She has served on several state and local taskforces related to providing high-quality educational services to rural students. Dr. Kapitz serves on the Board of Directors for the Wisconsin Council of Administrators of Special Services. She and her husband have three children and enjoy tending their apple orchard and traveling. Email Dr. Kelly Kapitz.

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