FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, WAUSAU, WISCONSIN, WAS HOMOGENEOUS AND COMPLACENT, among the whitest of cities in the country. No longer: beginning in the late 1970s, local churches began sponsoring displaced refugees from the wars in Southeast Asia, allowing them to settle in Wausau. As a result, the town (pop. 38,000) is now 15% Hmong, a people native to the mountains of Indochina who speak a language that until the 1950s had no written form.

Nowhere has the transformation been as dramatic and tense as in Wausau's school system, where today 30% of elementary students are Southeast Asian. Yet there is no formal...

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