A town is a living, breathing organism. It prospers and falters with the economy, with shifting birthrates, with changing migration patterns.
Not all that long ago, the central Minnesota community of Long Prairie was in a period of decline. The town, anchored for years by agriculture and local employers like Long Prairie Packing, and Dan’s Prize, was struggling. Many downtown businesses were closed, homes were up for sale and, at the local school district, always a bellwether of the economy, administrators watched as the number of enrolled children began to shrink.
During her 15-year career as an educator, Luan Thomas-Brunkhorst, director of the Long Prairie Chamber of Commerce and a former German teacher at Long Prairie Grey Eagle Secondary School, had a front-row seat to her community’s shifting circumstances.
“There were about 140 graduating seniors in a class when I came in,” she said. “But over time those numbers started declining and declining.”
While plenty of older people still lived in Long Prairie, not enough families with young children were moving in. This can be a problem: A strong crop of kids is key to keeping a community healthy and vital. When there aren’t enough young people to populate schools and eventually grow up and fill jobs, a town’s ecosystem struggles.
Lately, things are turning around for Long Prairie Grey Eagle Schools. Fueled by an influx of young families drawn to town by jobs at the packing plant and other employers, enrollment is making its way back up.
Tammy Cebulla, principal of Long Prairie Grey Eagle Elementary, keeps her eyes on the numbers. “The smallest graduating class we had was about 60 kids,” she said. “That was last year. Most classes average about 70 to 75 kids, and both of our buildings across the district are up in enrollment.”
Don Rasmussen has been mayor of Long Prairie for the last 18 years. He says his city fell into a slump during the Great Recession. As the state and national economy has picked up, so has Long Prairie’s prospects; Rasmussen credits the town’s immigrant population with helping to turn things around.
“We have had an influx of new families that have managed to come to Long Prairie, and they have their kids in our schools, which is absolutely great.”
These new families are mostly new Americans, or, at least, new Minnesotans. Slowly, over the last two decades and building in recent years, a significant number of Spanish-speaking workers, many originally from Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, many by way of California or Arizona, have moved to town. Many of these workers brought their families, or began forming families after they arrived.
“Numbers are keeping steady in the high school,” Cebulla said — and, more important, she added, the most significant student growth has been in the elementary grades. She and her fellow administrators are expecting a much-needed enrollment bump as those children grow.
Last year, at the end of September, Cebulla said that Long Prairie Grey Eagle Elementary School had an enrollment of 455 students in grades K-6. “This year, we are looking at about 481 students in our school,” she said. “Our numbers are on the increase. They’re on the right track.”
With this population bubble has come some conflict, said Don Hickman, vice president for community and workforce development for the Initiative Foundation, a charitable organization supporting social and economic growth in Central Minnesota.
“In Long Prairie, for eight years in a row now, the vast majority of the incoming kindergarten class has not spoken English at home before coming to school,” Hickman said. “This is not unusual in many parts of Minnesota, but it is mindboggling to this community.”
Not every Long Prairie resident welcomed these changes, Hickman added. “At first, some people were pretty resentful that there was a high concentration of Latinos in the schools, but the truth is that without the Latinos, they would’ve lost their district and the teachers in Long Prairie. The population there was shrinking that much.”
When the new families started moving to town, there were some residents who grumbled about the change, Rasmussen agreed. “I think that it was scary for the locals here when it first started happening. I think there was a lot of blame pushed on local industry.” Rumors spread that packing plant managers had promoted jobs to foreign workers, he added, and that got folks riled up: “All of those outsiders were changing the makeup of the town.”
Rasmussen doesn’t buy the story of a shadow plot by employers to recruit outside workers. He thinks it’s more likely that once they got to Long Prairie, the new arrivals reached out to their families and friends back home. “The people who came here for work got the word out about Long Prairie and how there were jobs, how it was a nice place to live,” he said.
While early on some observers worried about the potentially negative impact that a significant population of non-English speaking students could have on their peers, Cebulla said that she and her colleagues now mostly see the school’s shift in a positive light.
“For the most part it is going well,” she said. A significant ELL population, she added, “changes how we do things here, but in many ways it’s made us better teachers and educators because we’re having to work differently to teach all the kids.”
This positive attitude has been key to the district’s success during this period of growth, Thomas-Brunkhorst believes.
“Sure, there are some growing pains,” she said. One early struggle at the school was hiring enough ELL-qualified staff to meet the needs of the new students. “And even with the extra hands, there have still been communication issues. Kids don’t always understand everything that teachers say in class, but they’re kids: They learn fast, and they move on.”
Home for good
In 1994, James Ruiz came to town with his family after his father found a job at Long Prairie Packing. Ruiz, whose parents are originally from Mexico, was born in California. The eldest of five children, he attended Long Prairie Grey Eagle Schools and graduated from the secondary school in 2008.
After high school, Ruiz went away to college to study animation and multimedia, but after a couple of years he came back home to support his mother. Today he works in Long Prairie as a manager at a local auto parts supplier.
Ruiz said that many of his classmates left town after graduation, and don’t plan to come back. “We may have had a renaissance with the schools,” he said, “but many young people are not staying around town after graduation. They leave for the city as soon as they can.”
When Ruiz decided to return to Long Prairie, he also decided to become a contributing member of the community. He ran for, and won, a spot on the City Council, and when his term ended, he became a volunteer firefighter.
Running for City Council felt like the right thing to do, Ruiz said. “It was just me doing my part. If you are going to stay living here, helping out is an important thing to do. If you don’t participate and help in the community, you are not going to help it grow.”
Ruiz said in the early years of the population shift not all young immigrants took full advantage of the educational opportunities available in town. When he arrived, he recalled, many high-school-aged immigrant kids went straight to work alongside their parents at the packing plant rather than finishing their education. But now that’s changed.
Today, most local high school students are, Ruiz said, “putting off working at the packing plant. They are staying in school, aiming for college, trying to make a career.”
Investing in the future
Rasmussen said he would like to see more young people like Ruiz come back to Long Prairie and settle down. At City Hall, he said, they’ve talked a lot about ways to keep young people in the community.
“We’re fine with letting them go down to the city to get an education,” he allowed, “but after that I’d say to them, ‘Come back and work in your own community. See if you have an idea of a business or something else you’d like to make happen. If you have one, come and talk to us. We’ll see what we can do.’ ”
Under Rasmussen’s leadership, Long Prairie has made efforts to encourage immigrant entrepreneurship. It has partnered with the St. Paul-based Latino Economic Development Center to support the development of immigrant-owned businesses, including Agua Gorda, a worker-owned cooperative farm that produces fruits and vegetables for a number of clients — including natural food stores, Long Prairie-based vegetable processor MinnesotaFresh, Minneapolis tamale manufacturer La Loma Tamales and Long Prairie Grey Eagle Public Schools.
Long Prairie has also supported other local immigrant-owned businesses, including Mi Pueblito, a sprawling restaurant/grocery/general store that stretches over several storefronts on Central Avenue. The restaurant is popular with old-timers and immigrants alike, and owner Jose Garcia, who employs four full-time workers and earns monthly sales of more than $50,000, has plans to expand into yet another abandoned store down the street. Garcia came to town in 1997 to work at Long Prairie Packing, but eventually left the plant and went into business for himself.
Ruiz is inspired by Garcia’s success. “You can make anything you want happen here in the U.S. if you are dedicated and you have the heart to work,” he said. “Mi Pueblito is a good example of that.”
At the Chamber of Commerce, Thomas-Brunkhorst said that it’s good for business when Long Prairie’s new residents feel comfortable enough to make the town their permanent home. “I’ve tried to encourage people to buy, to rent, to start businesses here,” she said. She’s also worked to encourage newcomers to run for public office.
“We need new ideas,” Thomas-Brunkhorst said. “Among some long-time residents, there is a fear of change, but the Hispanics are jumping in and starting restaurants. They are filling our empty downtown buildings. They are populating our schools.”
Cebulla, who’s worked at Long Prairie Grey Eagle Schools for 19 years and as elementary principal for two, said that many of the immigrant families she knows are settling in and building history in the community.
“Some of our elementary families are second-generation families now,” she said. “They are participating more in sports and seeing the value of taking part in extracurricular activities.”
As people begin to feel settled in the community, they make time to expand their connections in the school.
“We have a really good turnout of all of our families at events, both daytime and evening,” Cubella said. And it’s not just fun activities like band concerts or Breakfast and Books, she added, proudly: “Our parent/teacher conferences at the elementary school have an over 90 percent parent attendance rate.”
Changes in the schools don’t just favor Long Prairie’s immigrant population, Cebulla said. Native-born families also benefit from the expanded horizons and opportunities that newcomers bring.
“My husband and I open enroll our four children into the district. I am very proud of what we have to offer here. I love the fact that my kids have the opportunity to go to school with kids who speak other languages and understand different cultures. That’s a really powerful educational opportunity. My kids get to be part of it.”