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Lori Porsch arrived as a newlywed in Storm Lake in 1981, a turning point for her and for the town, when Iowa Beef Processors (IBP) took over the Hygrade plant. In her time in Storm Lake, then, Porsch has witnessed first-hand the town’s transformation, and throughout her career with the Storm Lake Community School District (SLCSD), she often dealt with issues of race, poverty, and inequality on a daily basis.
The daughter of a superintendent, Porsch was raised in a variety of places in Iowa. She went to six different schools in thirteen years, and has seen a lot of the state, though she and her siblings grew up primarily in central Iowa.
“I was living mostly in the golden circle around Des Moines,” Porsch said. “My parents were involved more in social kinds of issues. So I did grow up in a situation where there was a little bit more…interest in looking at social justice and equality kinds of issues than typically most people of my age.”
Years later, she began teaching in Storm Lake while her husband, Mike, purchased a drug store. Early on, she noticed stark differences in Storm Lake schools compared to the Iowa schools of her youth.
In the early 1980s, newcomers primarily came from Southeast Asia in a resettlement program after the Vietnam War. But as the 1980s turned to the 1990s, and later with the transition from IBP to Tyson, diversity flourished. “That’s the time in Storm Lake when both the community and the workforce of those two plants specifically started to change the look of the district,” Porsch said. “When I left in 2014, oh, we had about 78% of the district at that time, was non-Caucasian.”
Porsch saw this shift up close, as the coordinator for the English Language Learner program in the district. When she first started at the district, 10% of the district qualified for the ELL program. By the time she retired, 60% did. As the diversity grew, the program and Porsch evolved. “We worked to try to provide any general ed teacher that wanted to get their English Language Learner…endorsement, anybody that wanted to get that, the district would pay for. And we did that, because we knew that we needed to integrate those strategies in general ed classrooms. We were never going to get kids proficient by keeping them in segregated classes,” Porsch said.
With diversity comes bias, and to minimize the implicit bias among the staff, they talked openly. Porsch said that not seeing color in the classroom is a matter of inequity. The staff had to talk about the culture shock the students were going through. They had to talk about poverty and the needs of families. “It’s that whole equality versus equity conversation,” she said. “And that schools need to be concerned with equity, which means that kids are getting what they need to be successful and that not everybody gets the same thing. It’s not about equal access, but it’s more about making sure that there’s the right support so that they can be achieving to their greatest potential.”
The employees are trained heavily to accommodate as best they can to their students in order to provide the best education. Many teachers have been trained in Spanish so they can teach bilingually. The teachers also went through a poverty simulation to show the challenges that these families go through on a daily basis.
“So they’re understanding what it takes to get English proficiency, understanding what families were going through,” Porsch said. “We had every staff member in our district go through a poverty simulation. Everybody from bus drivers, and our cafeteria workers, our, our secretaries are our teachers, everyone, because we just didn’t feel like they understood some of the real challenges the families were going through.”
It was important to Porsch that the employees understand why students may be behaving a certain way and how best to cater to them. The poverty simulation immersed participants by giving them the role of a real person in poverty, and then had them role-play, making ends meet for a month. The Storm Lake staff felt the stress of the Tyson pay and learned that for some families it is imperative that children contribute to the household income as well. That is why some of their students are not able to do extracurricular activities or why some students are not getting their work done. One of the questions asked was if a member of the staff would allow her/his child to sell drugs as a means of income, and a member of the staff said that he would allow his child to do so. When fully immersed in poverty, the staff was forced to make difficult decisions. The goal of the poverty simulation was to grab the staff’s attention, create general empathy for all members of the community, and take that understanding to the classroom. Porsch believes that the goal was met and has continued to practice the poverty simulation in her principal training sessions as well.
The accommodations that are provided by the school district do not stop with the students. The school district offers mental health and migrant coordinating services to the community. There was also a plan, before COVID-19 directed attention away, to offer ELL classes to parents. The SLCSD runs a food pantry and has partnered with Iowa food bank to provide for families. Porsch does not believe that Tyson should be providing these services, which are primarily provided by community partners. However, because of the diversity Tyson has brought, the school district has become eligible for federal money. She believes that tolerance in Storm Lake extends to Tyson.
“Now, I’m not going to tell you that every plant manager at either the turkey or the pork plant has been a willing partner with the school district. That isn’t true. But for the most part, we’ve worked really hard with their community liaison people,” Porsch said.
There is a partnership between Tyson and the Storm Lake community, which cannot be said for all Tyson plants. It’s because Storm Lake’s plant managers are willing to reach out, Porsch said. When the diversity in the community skyrocketed, Tyson lent their translators to the community, and the school district took them up on the offer. Translators were present in parent-teacher conferences for five to seven years, before the staff was trained in Spanish. The school district has worked extensively with the Tyson Foundation, the charitable wing of the company. Storm Lake schools have received benefits through that foundation. However, the schools mainly had to find their own way to fund their services to the community.
There is still a lot of division between the community and Tyson in Storm Lake, but Porsch is very supportive of the company. Tyson remained in production throughout the pandemic and was slow to implement social distancing and masks. Many employees contracted COVID-19 as a result, and some of those employees even died. A family member of one of the deceased Tyson employees filed a lawsuit against Tyson for gross negligence, and many are outraged.
By contrast, Porsch believes that the Storm Lake plant has done a good job with COVID-19, and that despite the high numbers of cases that resulted from working through the pandemic, the numbers were worse in other plants. The plant managers were working hard to make the working conditions safe, by doing things like putting plexiglass up on the line and changing when people went on break. None of these safety measures were being implemented at the Waterloo or Columbus City, Iowa, plants.
“They were working hard,” Porsch said about the Tyson liaisons. “And I’m just going to say, not to throw anybody under the bus, what was being done in Storm Lake, prior to an outbreak, compared to what was being done in Waterloo and Columbus, aren’t even in the same stratosphere.”
Tyson has its critics, but Porsch is happy with this particular plant. And she has embraced the diversity that IBP and Tyson brought to small-town Iowa. It’s why she felt so comfortable putting her children through its schools. Porsch has three adopted children, the older two originally from South Korea, and the youngest from Vietnam. Though her children were in the minority early on, by the time they were going to school, Porsch felt that her children had a better opportunity to see a diverse community than if they lived in an urban area. One time, when she was picking up her youngest son from the after-school program, he told her that he and his best friend decided to be brothers. “It was one of those occasions when you kind of know you live somewhere different, where your son who’s Asian, his friend who’s Latino, and you’re white, are involved in a conversation about how things go along.” Porsch recounted.
Storm Lake is a special place, and it’s difficult when the children leave to pursue higher education. Her daughter attended South Dakota State University, which had less than 1% diversity. She did not stay at the school, which is something that happens to a lot of Storm Lake students. As with the town, the school district has found a way to help future college students adapt to the real world. “They stuck out, and that was a whole new learning curve for them,” Porsch said. “We had to really change our pattern of how we helped kids get into college and universities, and to take a hard look at whether we needed to try to encourage kids to try to go some places where there was more diversity.”
Porsch said that the goal of the district is to get students to college, so when students came back home at the end of the first semester or first year, the educators took that as something that they themselves needed to change. As a result, Storm Lake schools have a plus-one program. It’s a charter program that allows sophomores to elect dual credit courses through the community college or Buena Vista University. Then, in their senior year, students are eligible to elect another year of high school, which allows them to get an associates degree. This is funded by general K-12 tax programs.
This program is one of many that Porsch believes made her a better educator. There were obstacles that she had to learn to overcome, which prompted her to relearn how to work with students. In her retirement, she has gone on to teach principal endorsement classes. Many of the educators in her class come from very white school districts. Porsch is able to offer insights on how to overcome bias and income inequality in the classroom.
“We’ve had a couple issues over time,” Porsch said of Storm Lake. “It’s not a perfect place to be, but those have been been teachable moments for us then as advocates, and as parents…We’ve tried to advocate not only for ourselves, but advocate for people we think do not necessarily have a voice.”