NOEL, MO - It’s almost 9 a.m., and Noel Primary School teacher Erin McPherson is helping a group of Spanish-speaking students complete English language exercises. But it’s tough going.
One student in a bright blue T-shirt – 9-year-old Isac Martinez – has not yet picked up his pencil. He’s clearly sick. When McPherson asks him what’s wrong, Isac’s small voice is barely audible in between coughs. He says he threw up four times last night but did not go to a doctor.
Even though she might like to stop class to give Isac some individualized attention, McPherson can’t afford to. She’s got 100-plus English language learners in her charge. But as is often the case at Noel Primary, McPherson is part-teacher and part-caseworker.
“It’s not just English. They come with all kinds of questions. Where they can find this, or find that. Support, home life,” McPherson said.
The challenges for McPherson and other Noel teachers offer unique insight into life in this remote town of 1,832 people in the Ozark Mountains not far from the Missouri-Kansas-Arkansas-Oklahoma border.
Roughly 220 students, age 3 to 9, attend school at Noel Primary. And about 75 percent of their parents are immigrants and refugees who moved to Noel to work at the Tyson Foods slaughterhouse.
This has been dubbed the “Christmas City” and “Canoe Capital of the Ozarks,” thanks to the Elk River that winds through town. But Noel is actually thriving because of the chicken plant. For rural Missouri, plant jobs pay decent wages that start at $9.05 an hour. Still, poverty looms large. More than 90 percent of these kids qualify for free and reduced meals. The number of homeless children at the school has doubled in the past five years.
Noel is just two miles square and isn’t much more than a Main Street; the nearest food pantry and free clinic are miles away. In effect, Noel schools have become the safety net for children whose parents work at the plant.
“We talk about frostbite. We talk about where you can go to get food if you’re not working yet. We do shots, talk about shots, the availability of them,” said Deborah Pearson, principal at Noel Primary. “Dentists come into our school and they check every child in the building. They do cleanings once a year. Glasses are a big thing. We do whatever we can to support these people.”
‘Know what America is’
Tyson turned down Harvest Public Media’s request for a plant tour and interview. But in an email, the company said that the Noel plant, which was owned by Hudson Foods until 1997, has a $77 million annual economic impact on the region and employs almost 1,500 people. Hispanics, most of them Mexican, came to work at the plant in the 1990s. Pacific Islanders and refugees from parts of Africa and Myanmar followed. In the past two decades, Noel’s Main Street has gradually changed to reflect its new residents. There are a Hispanic hair salon and taqueria across the street from an African market and mosque.
“If you want to know what America is, come sit in front of the feed store and watch people go by in a turban, in an island skirt and in their overalls, and they’re all just going to work,” said Angie Brewer, who is principal of Noel Elementary. The school sits beside the railroad tracks just a short walk from Main Street. About 11 languages – from Swahili to Penglopese – are spoken among the school’s 400 or so students in third through eighth grades.
“We are the government agency in town. People come here if they need shoes, if they need clothes, if they’re hungry. We send 37 backpacks home every weekend with kids that just don’t have enough food,” Brewer said.
Noel schools didn’t always look this way. Brewer grew up in nearby Anderson, Mo., and graduated from Noel High School in 1992. Her dad worked at the chicken plant one summer when it was owned by Hudson. Back then, Brewer remembers the schools were all white. Now, 66 percent of Noel Elementary’s students are minorities. Almost half the school is Hispanic. Immigration issues have become part of the regular school day.
“We have kids who are afraid because their parent has been stopped on their way to catch chickens and they are concerned that they will be deported,” Brewer said. “Last year, we had three families come in the next day, their dad was gone in the night. They were taken off the chicken truck and their mothers were scared.”
Tyson says it takes its responsibility to the community of Noel very seriously. The company gave 40,000 pounds of meat to food banks in the area since 2000. In August, it donated $35,000 to feed the school district’s neediest families. Tyson’s Burmese and Somali translators help enroll children in school.
Brewer is grateful for this assistance and believes that Tyson is one of the reasons Noel has not gone the way of many small, rural towns and slipped away. But she says it is the dynamic group of teachers working in her school that will make the difference for the kids of parents working in the plant.
“No one’s going to fall through a crack in Noel, Missouri. It’s not going to happen,” Brewer said. “I mean some of these are my own children's friends and these are my friends. They're real people and you’re not reading about them on TV or hearing about them. They’re people that I know. I’ve been to their house. I’ve sat on their couch. I’ve held their hand. They’re real people and they deserve the best.”
For Somali newcomers, who started moving to Noel in the late 2000s, this town has been particularly challenging. In August, tires on more than a dozen cars they owned were slashed. Somalis also say they are not welcome at Kathy’s Kountry Kitchen, a diner on Main Street where servers wear t-shirts saying ‘I got caught eating at the KKK’.
“When you find yourself as a family especially, in a place that is pretty remote and hasn’t recently been used to welcoming immigrants, you may feel pretty lost,” said University of Missouri education professor Lisa Dorner, who has done extensive research on immigrant children growing up in small towns and suburbs.
“A lot of schools in towns like this, they do become an integrative force, if you will. They become the place where a family can find things out and they often find out those things then filtered through the children,” she said.
The influx of immigrant and refugee families to Noel is beginning to get attention outside the schools. A nonprofit mental health provider called The Ozark Center is starting to counsel refugee children. Crowder College hopes to start an after-school program for plant children next year. A private health-care clinic in town wants to bring in more doctors.
Noel, of course, is not unique in its challenges. U.S. Department of Labor data show there are hundreds of rural meatpacking towns like Noel across the country. Dorner believes that immigrant children in these towns have a good chance of succeeding. By acting as guides for their families in America, they become bilingual, self-sufficient and often get jobs helping others later in life.
Around dusk one night at the housing project next to Noel Elementary, half a dozen teenagers from Somalia, Ethiopia and Mexico played a pickup soccer game. One of them, a plucky 13-year-old named Mohamed Hassan, came to Noel two years ago from a refugee camp in Kenya. His parents work at the Tyson plant. Soon though, they may move to Kansas City for better jobs.
“It’s hard to work at Tyson. I can feel it,” Mohamed said. “Because if I meet somebody that is older than 25 or 26, they always say like, they broke their finger, they hurt their finger, or like, they always say, ‘I’m tired’ or something like that. Everybody would like to move to a different job, except Tyson.”
Yet Mohamed says he likes Noel.
“When I first came, I didn’t know any English. And now I do, a lot. I learned at this school and I am going say to them, ‘Thank you for teaching me all that,'” he said.
Our Abbie Fentress Swanson traveled to Noel, Mo., and sent back this look at a changing town.