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White students no longer to be majority in school

Monday - 8/11/2014, 2:34am  ET

This photo taken July 21, 2014 shows Kennett Consolidated School District Superintendent Barry Tomasetti meeting with young students in teacher Jane Cornell's summer school class at Mary D. Lang Kindergarten Center in Kennett Square, Pa. For the first time ever _ U.S. public schools are projected this fall to have more minority students enrolled than white, a shift largely fueled by growth in the numbers of Hispanic children. White students are still expected to be the largest racial group in the public schools this year at 49.8 percent, but according to the National Center for Education Statistics, minority students, when added together, will now make up the majority. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

KIMBERLY HEFLING
Associated Press

KENNETT SQUARE, Pa. (AP) -- 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.

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