The cheerful sign outside Jane Cornell’s summer school classroom in Pennsylvania’s wealthiest county says “Welcome” and “Bienvenidos” in polished handwriting.
Inside, giggling grade-schoolers who mostly come from homes where Spanish is the primary language worked on storytelling with a tale about a crocodile going to the dentist. The children and their classroom at the Mary D. Lang Kindergarten Center, near both mushroom farms and the borough’s bucolic red-brick downtown, are a subtle reminder of America’s changing school demographics.
For the first time ever, U.S. public schools are projected this fall to have more minority students than non-Hispanic whites enrolled, a shift largely fueled by growth in the number of Hispanic children.
Non-Hispanic white students are still expected to be the largest racial group in the public schools this year at 49.8 percent. But the National Center for Education Statistics says minority students, when added together, will now make up the majority.
About one-quarter of the minority students are Hispanic, 15 percent are black and 5 percent are Asian and Pacific Islanders. Biracial students and Native Americans make up a smaller share of the minority student population.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the changing population a seminal moment in education. “We can’t talk about other people’s children. These are our children,” he said.
The shift creates new academic realities, such as the need for more English language instruction, and cultural ones, meaning changes in school lunch menus to reflect students’ tastes.
But it also brings some complex societal questions that often fall to school systems to address, including issues of immigration, poverty, diversity and inequity.
The result, at times, is racial and ethnic tension.
In Louisiana in July, Jefferson Parish public school administrators reached an agreement with the federal government to end an investigation into discrimination against English language learners.
In May, police had to be called to a school in the Streamwood, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, to help break up a fight between Hispanic and black students after a racially based lunchroom brawl got out of control.
Issues of race and ethnicity in school can also be more subtle.
In the Kennett Consolidated School District, Superintendent Barry Tomasetti described parents who opt to send their kids to private schools across the border in Delaware after touring diverse classrooms. Other families, he said, seek out the district’s diverse schools “because they realize it’s not a homogenous world out there.”
The changes in the district, about an hour southwest outside of Philadelphia, from mostly middle-to-upper class white to about 40 percent Hispanic was driven partly by workers migrating from Mexico and elsewhere to work the mushroom farms.
“We like our diversity,” Tomasetti said, even as he acknowledged the cost. He has had to hire English language instructors and translators for parent-teacher conferences. He has cobbled together money to provide summer school for many young English language learners who need extra reading and math support.
“Our expectation is all of our kids succeed,” he said.
Private schools nationally are changing as well, seeing a smaller number of white students and a greater number of Hispanic students in their decreasing pool of children.
The new majority-minority status of America’s schools mirrors a change that is coming for the nation as a whole. The Census Bureau estimates that the country’s population will have more minorities than whites for the first time in 2043, a change due in part to higher birth rates among Hispanics and a stagnating or declining birth rate among blacks, whites and Asians.
Today, slightly more than 1 in 5 kids speaks a language other than English at home.
But even as the population becomes more diverse, schools are becoming more racially segregated, reflecting U.S. housing patterns.
The disparities are evident even in the youngest of black, Hispanic and Native American children, who on average enter kindergarten academically behind their white and Asian peers. They are more likely to attend failing schools and face harsher school discipline.
Later, they have lower standardized test scores, on average, fewer opportunities to take advanced classes and are less likely to graduate.
Duncan said the disparities are unacceptable, and the country needs to make sure all students “have an opportunity to have a world class education, to do extraordinarily well.”
As the school-age population has become more nonwhite, it’s also become poorer, said Patricia Gandara, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA who serves on President Barack Obama’s advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.
Roughly one-quarter of Hispanics and African-Americans live below the poverty line — meaning a family of four has nearly $24,000 in annual income — and some of the poorest of Hispanic children are dealing with the instability of being in the country illegally or with a parent who is, Gandara said.
Focusing on teacher preparation and stronger curriculum is “not going to get us anywhere unless we pay attention to the really basic needs of these children, things like nutrition and health and safety, and the instability of the homes,” she said.
This transformation in school goes beyond just educating the children. Educators said parents must feel comfortable and accepted in schools, too.
Lisa Mack, president of the Ohio PTA, encourages local leaders to include grandparents and replace events such as a sock hop with one with a Motown theme that might be more inclusive or to provide opportunities for people of different ethnic groups to bring food to share at monthly meetings.
“I think one thing that’s critical is that schools and PTAs and everyone just need to understand that with changing demographics, you can’t do things the way you’ve done them before,” she said. “That you have to be creative in reaching out and making them feel welcomed and valued and supported in the school system.”
Some schools are seeking teachers to help reflect the demographics of their student population.
Today, fewer than 1 in 5 of the public schools teachers is a minority. “It is an ongoing challenge to try and make our teacher population reflect our student population,” said Steve Saunders, spokesman for the Adams County, Colorado, school district outside Denver that has seen a large shift toward having Hispanic students.
The New America Foundation, in a recent report, suggested teacher prep programs have at least one class for teachers on working with non-native English speakers and that education programs embrace bilingualism.
Andrea Giunta, a senior policy analyst at the National Education Association who focuses on teacher recruiting, retention and diversity, said you can’t assume that teachers are a good match just because of their background.
“Just because you speak Spanish doesn’t mean you speak the same Spanish your students are speaking and communicating with,” she said.
This comes as the NEA, the nation’s largest union, just elected an all-minority leadership team in July. The new president, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, is Latina, and the vice president and secretary-treasurer, Rebecca S. Pringle and Princess Moss, are black.
In Kennett Square, superintendent Tomasetti said Hispanic students in his district are performing at levels, on average, higher than their peers statewide. One recent graduate, Christian Cordova-Pedroza, is attending Harvard University this fall. Cordova-Pedroza is one of five children of a mushroom farmer from Mexico.
Cordova-Pedroza credited the motivation instilled by his parents combined with access to a variety of educational opportunities for his success, including an after-school program that included tutoring and help with college applications. He also was active in a Latino leadership club that helps provides translation services in the community and participated in summer programs at Penn State and Princeton.
“Certainly, I had to work hard to get there, but I feel like at every opportunity that I had a chance of participating in or doing that, I was always like, ‘Yes, I want to do that,'” he said.
Nearby, at El Nayarit Mexico Grocery Store, owner Jaime Sandoval, a native of Mexico with six kids, said he’s been pleased with the education his children have received. His 9-year-old daughter, he said, wants to be a teacher.
“She loves to read and all that stuff,” Sandoval said. “She always has good grades on English and she loves it much.”