It's unusually brisk on an early May day -- still, many of the rambunctious sixth-graders piling off their bus and into Viking Elementary School in Pelican Rapids wear short pants and t-shirts. The kids have come from the town of Audubon, which is a little more than a half hour's drive north.
Joining them in Pelican Rapids on this day are students from the bordering Hawley and Underwood school districts. They've come for Pelican Rapids' diversity.
Pelican Rapids is a remarkably diverse place considering its remote northwestern Minnesota location, where most people in the region share European heritage.
Low-wage jobs at a large turkey processing plant have long attracted immigrant workers to the area. Today, many of them are Somali and Latino and Bosnian. It's their children who've brought color to Pelican Rapids classrooms.
Nadine Brown oversees the West Central Minnesota Cultural Collaborative. The collaborative seeks to share Pelican Rapids' kids with the predominantly white children of nearby towns.
"This is brand new for our community," explains Brown. "We received notice from the Department of Education a couple of years ago that we were identified as a racially isolated school district -- which means there's more than 20 percent difference between the minorities that we have here and surrounding school districts that border us. And so we started off this school year working with them on programs to make sure our kids get together."
Brown has a budget of a little more than $250,000 -- 70 percent of which comes from a state integration fund. The balance comes from regional property taxpayers.
Since the beginning of the school year, Brown has worked to build relationships between Pelican Rapids' kindergarten through 12th graders and their counterparts in five adjacent districts.
The main event that's brought in outside students on this day is a "Music of the World" presentation. Class by class, students from Pelican Rapids and the visiting schools take their places in the bleachers of Viking Elementary's gymnasium for hour-long demonstrations of instruments collected by former music teacher Roger Tweiten, during his travels around the world.
As the fifth-graders take in the program, the sixth graders -- Pelican Rapids students along with their guests from Audubon elementary -- get reacquainted.
These sixth graders last got together together three months ago for a Valentine's Day roller skating trip to Fargo. Before that, they camped at a conservation reserve.
Audubon Elementary sixth grade teacher Sam Skaaland says many students were hestitant about the program at the beginning, but now friendships have sprouted.
"They were really excited to come again today," Skaaland says.
Skaaland says students, teachers and parents have welcomed the integration activities. He says the program is giving students from outside Pelican Rapids a rare opportunity step beyond their Anglo culture.
"It gives us a chance to associate with people that have different ethnic backgrounds, and different cultures, different colors of skin," says Skaaland. "And in our area, where we don't have a lot of that, it's good experience for the kids."
Statewide, the so-called Integration Revenue Program distributes about $80 million a year, 70 percent of that money comes from the state. The balance is paid by property taxpayers in school districts which receive the state money.
The program grew from efforts to desegregate schools in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth. The vast majority of the funds still are spent in urban areas of the state.
But Morgan Brown, who oversees the effort at the Minnesota Department of Education, says integration revenue is increasingly ending up in places like Pelican Rapids.
"It, at one time, would have been very unusual, but now I think it's more common," Brown says. "We're seeing regional centers in greater Minnesota that -- because of some kind of economic infrastructure -- have attracted more demographic diversity, more families of color than we saw in the past in greater Minnesota."
Last fall, the Office of the Legislative Auditor issued a report sharply criticizing the integration revenue program. The report concluded its purpose was unclear, that some districts use the money for "questionable expenses," and that the Minnesota Department of Education has failed to properly oversee the program.
That report came out too late for districts to change their plans for this school year. But Brown says going into next year, plans will be more carefully scrutinized to ensure integration money is being spent properly.
To help accomplish that, Brown brought together leaders of integration programs from throughout the state earlier this month, to discuss the best ways to use integration funds.
"There is an increasing focus among districts on first making sure that the activities are truly promoting voluntary integration among districts," says Brown. "The other thing I tihnk they're spending more time looking at is that these programs should have academic benefit as well."
I think if this program can help kids learn about different cultures, learn about themselves, learn about tolerance and respect, then I think it's one of the best things we can teach kids.Nadine Brown, Pelican Rapids Schools
The Department of Education has not formally reviewed Pelican Rapids' cultural collaboration, but Brown says it appears the program meets the intent of the law.
Pelican Rapids coordinator Nadine Brown says she tries to schedule events like the "Music of the World," that tie into culture and ethnicity. But more than anything, she strives simply to make it possible for the kids to interact.
"My goal was not necessarily to have everything with the big culture banner over it," Brown says. "It was just to get kids together to experience a fun event, an educational event with someone who might be from Somalia, from Bosnia or from Mexico."
Following the music program, the fifth graders from Pelican Rapids and Underwood mix on the playground.
The kids started to get to know one and one as pen pals at the beginning of the school year. They got together for the first time in December. In February, the Pelican Rapids kids went to Underwood for a scavenger hunt hosted by the Underwood High School's Spanish class.
"It's a good experience, because it may not be easier for one culture than for the other," says Noah Rocholl, an Underwood fifth grader. Rocholl has just been playing basketball with a group of kids, including a Somali girl wearing a colorful head scarf called a hijab.
"It's been pretty fun. Like the first time we came here, we got to learn about different cultures and stuff, and what it was like there. And it was fun doing crafts with them and stuff," Rocholl says.
State Rep. Marty Siefert, R-Marshall, has been an outspoken critic of some integration revenue program expenditures, including the commissioning of artwork. He's proposed redirecting millions of dollars of integration money from urban to rural districts.
"It is difficult a lot of times, when we just don't have money for basic elementary teachers and class sizes get bigger, that $80 million of the state budget is tied up in these things," Siefert says.
Siefert says even if integration funds are spent properly, with money so tight there are very likely better uses for the money.
"A lot of people say, 'Well, why don't you just give the money to the schools and let the school board figure it out and spread the money a little more,'" Siefert says.
Nadine Brown sees it differently.
"My response would be to invite anyone to come to our community and to see that it works amongst our community, and then to invite them along on any one of our culture exchanges and watch the kids laughing," Brown says. "I think if this program can help kids learn about different cultures, learn about themselves, learn about tolerance and respect, then I think it's one of the best things we can teach kids."