The point of all this, Feist and Martinez explained to me, is to give every kid a place at the school and a sense that their interests—whether snakes or fish or art—matter and belong at the school. Just as they do. The result: “Demon Pride.”
Much of the reason that this inclusion is working, according to Feist and Martinez, is the shared ethic of the faculty and administrators and their solid backgrounds with Dodge City and its schools. Most of the adults at the high school have been around for a long time and have invested their lives and careers in the school and community. Feist, who exudes energy, has been at Dodge City schools for 29 years. Martinez, who looks impossibly young to claim it, has been there for 19 years. Martinez often refers fondly to his students as “kiddos.” (To my Midwest ears, the use of “kiddo” is a natural and friendly term. It may not ring that way to everyone; to my husband, Jim, a Californian, it sounded unfamiliar.) The superintendent of schools for USD443, as the Dodge City system is called, Alan Cunningham, is retiring this year after 43 years of service.
There is also little turnover among teachers. Many of them are homegrown or from other parts of the region. Only one of 12 new teachers hired this year was from out of state.
But reports of spirit and dedication aren’t just insider cheerleading. Those traits are recognized beyond the school doors as well. DCHS made history this year by claiming the Kansas Teacher of the Year honor for the second year in a row—math teacher Justin Coffey in 2016 and biology teacher Shannon Ralph in 2015. The larger-than-life poster of the pair, standing—of course—back to back, is the first thing you see upon entering the school. Even 12-year veteran school-bus driver Eduardo Escobedo won the “top transit-class school-bus driver” at the Kansas School Bus Rodeo Safety Competition.
There is little chance for complacency to settle into Dodge City, whether inside the schools or out. Responding to change is a way of life, as the demographics of the town, and even more so in the school population, rapidly expand. The USD443 enrollment, currently around 7,100 students, has grown by roughly 100 students a year since about 1992 and is predicted to continue at that rate.
Since the late 1980s, the Hispanic population in grades K–12 rose from 20 percent to 79 percent. Currently, the high school is 68 percent Hispanic, with another 7 percent designated as “other,” which includes African and Asian immigrant populations; the rest are Anglo. In the high school, 36 percent of students are English-language learners, and 76 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
Keeping a school coherent throughout such dynamic changes is challenging. Each August, some 20 or 30 new immigrant students are likely to show up. The latest wave came from Guatemala. Many of the arriving Guatemalan kids, even at high-school age, entered a classroom for the first time and are illiterate. At home, conditions are often poor, and many families arrive with a rough history. Not to mention, assimilating into a new culture in America’s heartland is demanding.