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Education Complications: Why It Might Be Harder Than Ever to Teach Iowa Kids

DES MOINES, Iowa  --  Hormones and short attention spans already make it difficult for kids to pay attention, but that's always been the case. These days, a whole host of additional factors may make this the most difficult time ever to education Iowa children.

"I've taught 15 years in Des Moines," Regan Davidson said. But the district looks far different than she remembers when she grew up in it, and a growing number of students she sees in her classroom are "coming in with zero English."

Davidson said the district has more refugees than a decade ago and far more students speaking a language besides English.

The district provided numbers that show the changes that have occurred over the past quarter century:

2016

6,802 English Language Learners

Top 4 languages in order:

Spanish

Karen

Somali

Arabic

1990

632 English Language Learners

Top 4 languages in order:

Vietnamese

Lao

Thai Dam

Spanish

Overall, about one in five students is considered an English Language Learner (ELL). This is about one in eight students statewide.

Students speak at least 136 languages in Iowa schools besides English, according to the Iowa Department of Education.

But an increasingly diverse student population is just one of a handful of growing challenges in education right now.

"We are complex organizations," Norwalk Superintendent Duane (D.T.) Magee said, "That need resources."

But Magee isn't just lamenting a yearly funding increase from state lawmakers that won't be high enough to match the rate of inflation. He said districts feel increasingly obligated to assist students with other aspects of their lives, and it's because those students need more help.

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," Magee said, citing an old proverb.

He said districts often try to help provide food, clothing, washers and dryers on site for families, as well as counseling services to help students in need.

Childhood poverty has increased by nearly 40 percent in Iowa since 2000.

Magee believes the biggest need in his district is the financial struggles of families. "Having from an economic model...that folks make a decent living," he said of his hope for families in the future.

Liz Cox, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Iowa, worries about the stress on students and families. While diversity and financial hardships weigh on her mind, there are other factors, too.

The Iowa National Guard has been deployed almost constantly since 2001, which strains families both during deployment and after service members return home. Drugs and the recent opioid epidemic add to families' hardships. Social media bullying and harassment can mean even more struggles for kids.

Add all of those up and it's a worrisome stressload on families, Cox believes. "The solutions are right in front of us," she maintains. She urges Iowans to be a trusted confidant for children, no matter if they are their own. "Those have a lasting impact," she said.

Resources for parents from Prevent Child Abuse Iowa.

Cox wants Iowans to find ways to get involved in children's lives, through work, church, neighborhoods, or civic organizations. "Care for each other as neighbors," she hopes.