LAWRENCE – Schools bring communities together. And when a community undergoes demographic and cultural changes due to immigration, nowhere is that change more evident than the local centers of education.
Researchers at the University of Kansas have won a grant to study how 30 years of continuous population changes in Garden City have affected local schools and what that can teach educators throughout the nation.
Jennifer Ng, associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies, and Don Stull, professor of anthropology, have won a grant from the Spencer Foundation to conduct research in the southwest Kansas community, which has seen continuous immigration from around the world since the early 1980s and is now a majority-minority community.
Since the opening of what was then the world's largest beef packing plant in December 1980, the community has become home to immigrants from Latin America, southeast Asia and, more recently, nations such as Somalia, Ethiopia and Myanmar.
"We're thinking about schools in a community context," Ng said of the research. "It's unique to have a place like this in Kansas, and its relevance reaches well beyond Kansas, too."
The research will have broad significance, the professors say, as communities across the Midwest, Southeast United States and Canada have seen many of the same challenges and opportunities. Food processing has become a major industry in rural economies, and immigrants have increasingly settled in rural areas rather than in large coastal cities.
The researchers will conduct interviews in the public schools with teachers, administrators, parents and students to learn how community demographics have affected their daily operations. They will focus largely on how the school district serves the needs of its diverse student body, which includes migrant and refugee students and speakers of 21 languages other than English.
With education as their focus, Ng and Stull also will work with the local community college and other organizations in the community that provide family programs, adult education and more.
The researchers will spend nearly a year gathering data to chronicle how Garden City's schools have adapted to constant cultural, linguistic and religious change, examining areas of excellence and possible improvement. They will present reports of their findings to school and community leaders. They also will disseminate their research to the Spencer Foundation and larger educational research community, offering insights to those interested in multiculturalism, involved in the preparation of future teachers, and educational leaders and policy makers.
"Nationally these communities are becoming more visible," Ng said. "In the recent elections, for example, we heard so much about this new generation of Americans and the importance of demography and diversity."
The new project will draw on Stull's 25 years of research experience in Garden City and his expertise on how the meat and poultry industries impact communities. In the late 1980s, Stull led a Ford Foundation study of how immigration and changing ethnic relations affected Garden City, one of the first "Latino boomtowns."
They will cross-reference the new findings with the previous report.
"I'll be going back to a very familiar community and one that I'm deeply committed to and engaged with," Stull said. "I'm very much looking forward to it. That familiarity gives us a nice time depth that is unusual. We'll be able to take a look at what we found then and what has changed since, which is an unusual depth in academic research."
While the research will focus on one community, lessons learned there are increasingly prescient for communities beyond the state's borders. Garden City is well-known as a community that has dealt successfully with significant and prolonged change, change which has confronted an increasing number of rural communities throughout North America in recent decades.
"Garden City was at the forefront of that changing demographic and has been an exemplar, not only of what has happened, but what will continue to happen," Stull said. "Schools are one of the places in any community where everyone comes together. That's not necessarily true of work, recreation, religion, or similar institutions. We'll be able to look at that intersection of school and community and learn a great deal."