Our View: Preparing for diversity | SteamboatToday.com

Our View: Preparing for diversity

The 2000 Census showed Routt County to be the least diverse of any county in Colorado with more than 10,000 people. Minorities comprised just 5 percent of the county’s population, and just 3.22 percent were Hispanics. Anglos made up 95 percent of the county.

While updated census numbers are not available, it is clear Routt County’s demographics are changing. In particular, the county’s Hispanic population is growing rapidly as more and more Mexican immigrants make their way here.

Many communities across the West experienced this cultural shift long ago. Some welcomed the change. Others struggled with it.

That similar changes in our population would occur was inevitable. Fortunately, we are at the front end of that change and are in a position to prepare for and embrace it in a way that allows us to build a healthier community with greater diversity and a more enriched culture.

The reasons for the growth are varied. Obviously, Mexican immigrants are coming to Steamboat Springs for work in the construction and service industries. Immigrants who have been here and established themselves in their jobs and the community are now bringing family members. Immigrants who worked in Routt County but initially lived elsewhere are finding housing closer to where they work. Some immigrants are here legally; some are not.

The best indications of these changes are in the Steamboat Springs School District and at Colorado Mountain College. At the end of the 2002-03 school year, there were 12 students in the school district who needed assistance because they had limited English skills. Three months later, 31 students — ranging from kindergartners to high-schoolers — need assistance. School officials say that number likely will rise before the district finalizes its enrollment Oct. 1.

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At Colorado Mountain College, enrollment in the college’s English as a Second Language program for adults has more than quadrupled in five years.

The school district adopted new policies last May to address English as a Second Language. The district also hired its first full-time English as a Second Language aide. CMC has expanded its adult education offerings. At Yampa Valley Medical Center, the hospital uses a “tele-interpreter” program to provide hospital employees with telephone access to an interpreter 24 hours per day, seven days per week.

But these are merely first steps. More can and should be done to ensure the smooth integration of this growing population. Some examples:

n No doubt there are Spanish-speaking residents in the community willing to help with this cultural shift. We should actively seek and welcome their help — particularly from immigrants themselves — in our schools, hospitals and other programs.

n The school district must continue to build on what it has begun this year. It is unrealistic to expect one aide to meet the needs of 31 students spread across 13 grade levels.

n Employers should understand what assistance is available to immigrant workers and make information on education, health-care and human-services programs readily available to the employees in the workplace.

n Finally, existing residents should reach out to new immigrants to help them feel integrated into, rather than isolated within, our community.

The face of Routt County, for so long almost exclusively white, is changing. Not only should we accept such change, we should welcome it. By doing so, we can build a better, more diverse community.