When We Stop Counting: An Interview with Supt. Kyle McGowan

Kyle McGowan is the former superintendent of Crete Public Schools in Crete, Nebraska, a town whose demographics have rapidly changed in the past two decades. He was featured in the 2010 documentary When We Stop Counting, which shares the stories of six Hispanic students in Crete, along with their hopes and challenges.  Under his leadership, the district expanded outreach and programming for its growing ELL population. In this interview with Colorín Colorado, Kyle discusses what the district did to welcome their new families and build bridges with the rest of the community.

To see more from Kyle, take a look at this vignette from American Graduate Day's "Stories of Champions" about his efforts on behalf of ELLs and early childhood education programs.

Tell us about the town of Crete and your district.

Crete is a rural Nebraska community with a population of approximately 7,000 residents.  The town is located twenty minutes southwest of the state capitol, Lincoln.  The largest employers in the community are a meat-packing plant, a pet food company, a milling operation and a small college.  It’s fair to say that we’re a "blue collar" town.

New Immigrants in the Heartland

For more information about changing demographics in the Heartland, see our related interview with Dr. Ted Hamann from the University of Nebraska.

The school district includes students from four smaller communities.  The current Pre-K thru 12 population is 1900 students, with more than 500 ELLs.  The children are served primarily at three sites (elementary, middle, and high schools), and we’re very proud of the fact that we passed a $33 million bond issue in recent years to build a new high school.

How have your district demographics changed in recent years?

In 1990, our minority population was less than 3%.  In 2000, Crete’s minority student population was 19% and today over 59% of all students are considered to be of minority status. USA Today listed Saline County in Nebraska as having the fastest growing Hispanic population in the nation in 2000. The vast majority of the 59% group of minority students are Latino.

What were some of the early responses to those changes as they began to take shape?

The community initially tended to be quietly polite regarding the influx of new Hispanic families.  There is a strong Czech heritage in the area.  As the number of Latinos calling Crete home began to grow, there was a definite reluctance to accept and/or tolerate the Spanish Language being spoken and the inevitable confusion caused by communication problems. Fortunately, there were strong community leaders welcoming the new residents and looking for opportunities to bring the cultures together.

Several inaccurate generalizations surfaced, including the following:

  • Every Latino is of Mexican nationality.
  • Every Hispanic is working at the meat packing plant and is most likely not legally residing in the country.
  • Latinos have no interest in learning English.
  • Immigrants are not paying taxes.

How did the responses change as the Latino community grew?

Crete Public Schools. American Graduate Project.

The school took a leadership role in getting accurate information about the cultures of our families out to the broader community and our staff. There started to be two separate cultures existing in the small community.  This wasn’t positive. Again, the school and churches had the best opportunities to bring groups together.

How has your district evolved in terms of staffing and bilingual support for families?

I don’t like the word "tolerant."  One tolerates a rock in their shoe until they can get rid of it.  We are an "inviting" school district as opposed to teaching "tolerance."  So, for example, systems are set in place to communicate with parents and students.  Speaking different languages is a small inconvenience.

Creating a culture which demonstrates the value of education and requires commitment from parents, students and staff is an hourly task. We know that all parents want a safe place for their kids and to have them achieve a better life. All teachers want kids to learn to their full potential and know that can only happen with the support and input of parents.

One of the greatest professional development days we did was a session in which the staff broke into small groups to listen to parents share why they left their homes to come to the USA and Crete, Nebraska.  There were lots of terrible stories of crime, hunger and lack of opportunities. The common message we heard from parents was, "I want my children to have a better life." Our staff could relate as the universal feelings experienced by all parents – and there were lots of tears.

What advice do you have in general for school and district leaders who are experiencing changing demographics?

  • Be honored your district has been chosen as a new home by immigrant families.
  • Focus on instructional skills which will support all students.
  • Take the extra steps to involve all parents. Remember that all parents want the same things from the school: safety, educational gains, and a welcoming environment.
  • Dispel myths directly, strongly and repeatedly.
  • Don’t allow minority or poverty numbers as excuses to fail.  Leaders will set that tone/culture in a positive manner.
  • Implementing extended programs which serve the entire family will have positive impact; however, the investment takes time. Start early childhood and preschool programs.  Provide adult education classes which teach English and move towards vibrant GED programs.  Use before and after-school programs to support learning and safe environments for students.  Summer programs are a must.

What are some of the steps that leaders can take to welcome newcomers and "set the tone" for the school or district regarding newcomer families and students?

Be nice to everyone. Take away or help with the red-tape always associated with public agencies. Nobody likes meetings.  Have carnivals and children events to get parents to attend school activities and then throw in some information.

Are there some success stories you'd like to share?

The graduating class of 2012 had 5 Valedictorians. Two were native English speakers. The other three had participated in our ELL programs over the years.  Their parents had participated in a variety of other school sponsored services, i.e. GED, Adult ELL classes, etc.  One of our students had worked 8-hour night shifts and graduated from school on time with a college scholarship.

In the film, would you explain what you meant by your phrase, “When we stop counting…”?

Kids have to overcome a lot of difficulties in this world.  As educators, we can make a big difference. The American dream is still alive: Work hard, get an education and you can be successful.  It often takes a generation sacrificing for the next one to capture the dream.  Yet I continue to struggle with the constant "quotas" or number crunching to describe school success or not. Too many important data points aren't counted which will show a healthy school culture. For example, the Homecoming queen is Latina; the National Honor Society President is Latino, and the cheering section shouts "Diversity Rocks!"

Crete Schools has good test scores and refuses to allow the typical demographic trends to establish what those scores will be in the future. We're in a current society which wants to rank, therefore, only measuring success by beating someone else.  We want our students to show constant improvement and not succumb to some of these political efforts… which is easier said than done. If we’re playing football or soccer, we want to win. But we want everyone to succeed in Algebra class.

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National Education Association. How Educators Can Advocate for English Language Learners.

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