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Wendell Ed Report

Jose Lara, left, takes a test in his 3rd grade math class Feb. 1 at Wendell Elementary School in Wendell. 50 percent of students at the elementary school are classified as "Limited English Proficient," though that number drops to 12 percent by the time students reach Wendell High School. 

South-central Idaho is growing. There is no question about that.

But in some Magic Valley counties, if not for Hispanic population growth, there would be no population growth at all.

All eight counties in south-central Idaho experienced population increases between 2016 and 2017. If not for Hispanic growth, however, the populations of Jerome County and Minidoka County would have shrunk.

Jerome County’s population grew 1.6 percent – or 370 people – between 2016 and 2017. But the Hispanic population – which now accounts for almost 35 percent of the county’s population – grew 4.6 percent, or 373 people, according to new data released by the Idaho Department of Labor.

The same is true for Minidoka County. Its population grew by 146 residents overall, but the county gained 166 new Hispanic residents. So without Hispanic growth, Minidoka County would have lost residents between 2016 and 2017.

South-central is not alone in this trend. All across the rural West, Hispanic populations have increased rapidly in the past few decades. The Hispanic share of the overall population in Adams County, Wash., increased 39 percentage points between 1980 and 2015, from 22 percent to 61 percent. Just to the south, in the more populous Franklin County, their share increased 36 points over the same period.

The Magic Valley has not seen changes that drastic. But in Jerome County, the Hispanic share of the population has increased 29.6 points between 1980 and 2015, from virtually non-existent to 33.4 percent of the overall population. In Gooding County, the shift was 22.2 points, and in Minidoka County 18.3 points.

As people continue to flock to cities like Twin Falls and Boise here in the Gem State, the Hispanic population is keeping rural areas from falling behind.

According to Census data, rural Hispanics tend to be younger than non-Hispanic whites. That means more Hispanics have young children in rural schools, which boosts school enrollment and funding. That’s evident on a local level in Gooding County, where 50 percent of students at Wendell Elementary School are considered “limited English proficient.”

Teaching those students come with a different set of challenges, but those challenges certainly outweigh the alternative – Wendell’s school enrollment heads the wrong way, and its funding follows.

In Jerome, Heyburn and plenty of other Magic Valley towns, your neighbors might look different than they did 20 years ago. They might come from a different culture than you own.

But we think diversity is generally a good thing. Anything that requires us to get outside of our own shoes and consider what life is like on the other side of the street helps us grow individually and collectively.

Throughout most of the 1900s, the Magic Valley looked one way. Now, as the region becomes more diverse, it looks different. As more people want to live in Idaho – and really, who wouldn’t? – that Hispanic population growth may just ensure that Idaho’s small, rural areas don’t wither away while its metro areas boom.

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