Newly Diverse Suburbs Facing City-Style Woes

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When Karmel Shields, executive director of the Bellevue (Wash.) Schools Foundation, approaches residents of the largely affluent suburban district for donations to support programs for disadvantaged students, she is frequently met with puzzled glances.

The proportion of minority students, many from low-income families, enrolled in the district east of Seattle has increased from 8 percent to 21 percent over the past 10 years, fueled by a large increase in the number of students immigrating from Vietnam and Cambodia.

But Bellevue residents still have "a suburban mentality," Ms. Shields observed recently.

"As a fund-raiser in this community," she said, "people say to me, 'You're in the suburbs. What kinds of needs can you possibly have? You're all white and middle class, aren't you?"'

School-district officials and Ms. Shields, whose foundation spends about $250,000 a year to support programs for at-risk students in Bellevue, increasingly find themselves having to explain to their community of 87,000 that the district is no longer a homogeneous enclave insulated from the kinds of demands placed on central-city schools.

"There are a lot of people who still, I think, aren't fully aware that the community is changing," said Ann Oxrieder, the school district's spokesman, "because from their vantage point, it's not."

Bellevue's experience has been repeated over the past decade in suburban school districts throughout the country.

For these districts, demographic trends have brought a racial and ethnic richness that many welcome--as well as costly new student services, a need for specialized teacher-training programs, disputes over school-attendance boundaries, and difficult-to-bridge gaps between cultures and social classes.

While the sweeping population shifts that took place during the 1980's may not be immediately apparent to suburban residents, they are increasingly reflected in the schools. The 1990 census, which found that one in every four Americans is now a member of a minority group, showed dramatic rises in the number of minority residents in many suburban counties.

Demographers expect that final anaylses of census data will show that a quarter of the nation's 30 million blacks, for example, now live in suburbs.

Although in most places minorities still make up relatively small percentages of suburban residents, the rate of increase for minority populations in many suburban areas, from the Pacific Northwest to the Southeast, has been large.

The changes are especially apparent in "inner ring" suburbs close to cities, demographers say, where members of minority groups are moving into long-established communities as white residents move to job-rich suburbs located farther from the urban core.

How much of the movement represents the advancement of middle-class blacks and other minorities into better neighborhoods, and how much is simply a "spillover of the city into the suburbs," remains in question, said William H. Frey, a research scientist with the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan.

The increasing number of minority residents in the suburbs also does not mean that they are living in integrated areas, Mr. Frey said. The suburbs of Washington, D.C., are noted for being relatively well integrated by a large population of black professionals, he said, while those of Chicago and Detroit have proven much more difficult for blacks and other minorities to penetrate.

A study of 1990 census data conducted by the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain found that 30 percent of the nation's blacks still live in neighborhoods that are at least 90 percent black. The study found the number of blacks living in such "isolation" had not changed significantly since 1980.

At the same time, many of the newcomers to suburbia are Hispanic and Asian. In many cases, immigrant families from around the globe have chosen to bypass inner cities to settle first in suburban areas that offer better schools, housing, and job opportunities. They also are drawn to locations where friends and relatives have previously made their homes.

In metropolitan Washington, for example, the nearby suburban areas of Montgomery County, Md., and Fairfax County, Va., have seen particularly dramatic increases in the number of Hispanic and Asian students enrolled in local schools.

In 1983, 18.5 percent of Fairfax County's students were members of minority groups. Today, 28.2 percent of its 130,200 students belong to minorities--a proportion that is expected to rise to 37 percent by 1998, according to district projections. The fastest growth is expected in the number of Hispanic and Asian students.

All told, 102 languages are spoken by Fairfax County students; currently, about half of the new students entering the district's schools each year are not fluent in English.

In Maryland, meanwhile, the Montgomery County system is experiencing a similar trend. The district currently enrolls 104,000 students, 38 percent of whom are members of minority groups, many of them foreign-born. By 1997, enrollment is projected to grow by another 30,000 students, the majority of whom are expected to be members of minority groups.

And in Glendale, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles, the number of students whose first language is not English has skyrocketed from about 10 percent in 1980 to 49 percent today. The 25,000-student school district has the largest number of Armenian students in the state, according to Donald Empey, the deputy superintendent of instruction, and also has significant numbers of students who speak Spanish, Korean, Farsi, Arabic, and Vietnamese.

While the first waves of immigrant families to settle in Glendale were relatively well-off financially, district officials say, they have been followed by much poorer immigrants.

"Prior to 1980, Glendale was noted as being a white, middle-class, suburban area," Mr. Empey said. "That has changed dramatically. There's no question we've received a larger number of low-income students.''

Many suburban administrators, teachers, and school-board members say they welcome the influx of students from diverse backgrounds. A more heterogeneous enrollment, they say, provides unparalleled opportunities to prepare all students to live in a global society.

But they caution that serving students who do not speak English fluently, who are poor, and who come from unfamiliar cultures also means strains on district budgets, on teachers, and sometimes on the communities that must support the schools.

In response to such concerns, a number of experts on minority issues stress that it is critically important for the suburban districts to educate these new students well. Otherwise, these observers warn, residents who moved to the suburbs in search of better lives will find themselves cheated out of the solid educations that have been the route into the middle class.

In several metropolitan areas, noted Gary Orfield, a professor of political science and education at the University of Chicago, middle-class black students no longer attend school in the central city. Although Chicago, for example, remains one of the most segregated cities in the nation, there are 72,000 black students attending school outside the city limits this year, Mr. Orfield said, compared with 237,000 black students in the city schools.

His figures also show that while 110,000 Hispanic students attend Chicago schools, 57,000 are enrolled in neighboring suburban districts.

Mr. Orfield's data for Asian students are even dramatic, showing that 32,000 Asians are enrolled in Chicago-area suburban schools, compared with 12,000 in the city schools.

"The question is, in the long run," Mr. Orfield said of minority students, "are they going to be in suburban schools that work like most do--that are connected to college and jobs--or in schools like the ones they left behind, that are low-income, less competitive, and less connected?"

Mr. Orfield maintains that without strong local leadership that values diversity and works to prevent schools from becoming racially identifiable, there is a risk that minority students will become isolated in inferior schools within suburban districts.

"A lot of these suburban school systems have absolutely no minority leadership, no minority staffing, and do nothing to train their people," he said. "They see [diversity] as a disease that hit their community, and maybe they can ignore it and it may go away."

The University of Chicago scholar also believes that strong state and federal leadership is needed to ensure that districts maintain desegregated schools.

"There's just much less attention to these questions now," he said, "because it's such a conservative age."

Making the decisions that would prevent schools from becoming racially identifiable, however, is far from easy for suburban school-board members.

When the Fairfax County school board took up the issue of how to attract more English-speaking students to Bailey's Elementary School earlier this spring, it touched off a debate over how best to accomplish the goal.

More than 85 percent of the students who attend the award-winning school speak English as a second language, according to Dolores Bohen, the Virginia district's assistant superintendent for communications.

"It's a high-energy, high-achieving school," Ms. Bohen said. "It isn't that we're talking about the school having serious academic problems. But they do have low test scores because of students who don't speak English."

Board members debated changing the attendance boundaries for the school, but voted in a split decision to create instead a special magnet program at the school to attract English-speaking children.

The decision deeply disappointed Richard Kurin, president of the school's parent-teacher association.

"If this had been any other school in the county, the school board would have done what it does in any other case, which is change the boundaries," Mr. Kurin said.

The reason it did not, he charged, is that the upper-middle-class white residents who live near the school would have balked at sending their children to school with poor, minority students.

Mr. Kurin argued that creating an expensive magnet program was unlikely to significantly change the student population at the school, since it already has several well-regarded programs.

"I don't think what the school system has done is educate parents about why diversity is good or educationally beneficial," he said.

"By the year 2000," he continued, "the county is going to have 40,000 kids in the system who are ethnic or language minorities. What are we going to do then?"

Ms. Bohen agreed that a "conventional" magnet program would be unlikely to bring in enough English-speaking students. But she argued that boundary changes also were "not an easy solution" because nearby schools also have large numbers of non-English-speaking students.

Armando M. Rodriguez, a Fairfax County school-board member who voted in favor of changing the school's boundaries, noted that the county has been successful with minority and foreign students whose parents are highly educated professionals or diplomats posted to Washington, but is having "a very difficult time" with more recent, less affluent immigrants.

"Now, they don't really want to change from what they had success with," Mr. Rodriguez maintained.

He added that educational research has shown that both language-minority and English-speaking students benefit from attending school together, but that parents will not be convinced that is true if the school district and the community do not push for integrated schools.

Another Fairfax school-board member, Robert Frye, who is black and also favored changing the school's boundaries, questioned whether the district could afford to create a magnet school and whether it should establish a policy of doing so in such situations.

"Clearly, there were some racial overtones and some economic overtones" to the boundary discussion, Mr. Frye said. "Generally, in this county, the economic overtones are equal to the racial."

The interplay some see in Fairfax County between economic differences and those of racial or ethnic background is not unique, suggested Robert A. Kronley, a senior consultant with the Southern Education Foundation. As minorities have followed jobs to the suburbs, he noted, the economic profiles of suburban school districts have changed.

"The diversity is not only racial, but increasingly economic," Mr. Kronley said. "In some ways, this is more threatening."

"In the suburbs, people are able to make peace with people of the same economic class, as long as there are not too many of them," he said. "The increasing threats are based on racial diversity, plus a problem about class."

Such divisions, Mr. Kronley said, will make suburban school leadership "a major issue" in the future.

"Just as the urban school superintendencies have become such kamikaze jobs, we'll see the same thing happen in suburban jobs," he predicted.

He suggested that white children are those who benefit the most from attending schools with students of other races and backgrounds.

"For some of these kids, it may be the best thing to happen to them," Mr. Kronley said. "They may become more accepting, curious, and tolerant than others are giving them credit for."

"But I haven't seen a lot of that yet," he added.

Still, some suburban communities have made a concerted effort over the years to foster integration and racial harmony.

In the Chapel Hill/Carrboro school district in North Carolina, for example, a recent decision to redraw attendance boundaries to achieve better racial and ethnic balance proved to be relatively painless for school-board members.

The district has a history of valuing integration that stood it in good stead in redrawing the boundaries, said Sue Baker, chairman of the city board of education. In 1964, the district voluntarily integrated its schools.

The new boundary changes were triggered because one school in the 6,000-student district had achieved a minority population of almost 50 percent, according to Gerry H. House, the superintendent. The board has a longstanding policy that the proportion of minority enrollment at any one school cannot exceed that for the district as whole--now 28 percent--by more than 2 or 3 percentage points.

In addition to a black student population of about 21 percent, 7 percent of the district's students are Asian. Some are the children of students at the University of North Carolina's Chapel Hill campus, while others are Southeast-Asian immigrants who are not literate in their native tongues.

"It is a part of the culture of the district to believe that diversity is a positive thing," Ms. House said. "Children deserve to be in situations where they can enjoy that diversity."

In Ohio, the community of Cleveland Heights two decades ago became a national leader among suburban towns in its commitment to integration. Race-related tensions there over the past year, however, have prompted an intense process of self-scrutiny by the school system and the community. (See related story, page 14.)

For some suburbanites, learning to talk about diversity and to interact with people of different races and cultures has been an awkward, if rewarding, process.

Jean Mallon, president of the Montgomery County Council of P.T.A.'s, recalled attending a dinner given by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and wondering about the African tribal scarves worn by many of the men.

"I turned around and asked" what the scarves were, Ms. Mallon said. "A lot of people are afraid to ask. There's the perception that we're not supposed to talk about the fact that we're different."

However, Ms. Mallon said she does not feel comfortable "making a separate issue" out of the Maryland county's growing diversity, which she said she views as a positive development.

"All children have needs," she said, "and those needs need to be met by a school system."

But Bellevue school officials believe that talking openly about the Washington State district's changing demographics is the only way to enlist community support for the schools, Ms. Oxrieder, the district spokesman, said.

"Our service organizations, the Rotary and the Kiwanis, are believing it," she said. "The Chamber of Commerce is getting involved in some parent-education activities."

"By talking about [the increasing diversity]," Ms. Oxrieder continued, "we've been able to broaden the awareness of groups and get some support from them."

Beyond helping a community realize the sometimes subtle demographic changes that are transforming its schools lies the sensitive issue of disparities in student achievement.

Some suburban school districts, such as Prince George's County, Md., which the 1990 census found now has a majority-black population, are wrestling with the low achievement of some minority students and struggling to devise teacher-training programs, curricula, and policies that will increase student achievement.

Fairfax County also is "painfully aware" of the achievement gaps between minority and white students, Ms. Bohen said, as is Montgomery County. Both have commissioned studies to evaluate their performance in educating minority students.

In other suburban areas, highly motivated immigrant students are outpacing the performance of native-born children. While their success has delighted their parents and teachers, it can also bring a negative backlash from the community, some educators say.

Ms. Shields of the Bellevue Schools Foundation recalls discussing at a planning luncheon the achievement of the students who had been assisted by the foundation.

"Someone made the comment, 'Oh, they're all Asians, huh?"' she recalled. "It was surprising. They said, 'I don't have a problem with that, but it seems like all the Asian students get all the benefits of this."'

And in middle-class communities where jobs are tight, resentment of immigrants who find the resources to open their own stores, or to run gas stations or other businesses, is not uncommon.

Middlesex County, N.J., which is 77 percent white, experienced dramatic growth in the number of black, Hispanic, and Asian residents during the 1980's, according to the latest census. While the county's white population increased by less than 1 percent, the numbers of blacks, Hispanics, and Asians in8creased by 41 percent, 75 percent, and 247 percent, respectively.

A group of Middlesex leaders has formed a human-relations commission to combat the increased number of bias-related crimes, such as defacement and vandalism of Indian-owned businesses, that has accompanied the demographic changes.

Charles A. Boyle, superintendent of the 11,000-student Edison school district in Middlesex County, said he believes native-born students and their families could learn a lot by watching the county's immigrants.

"If some of our native-born Americans would adopt some of [the newcomers'] family styles and educational commitments for their kids, their kids would do better," Mr. Boyle said. "School comes first for them. It's refreshing."

Twenty-seven percent of the students in Edison are foreign-born, most of them Asian, while 7 percent are black and the remainder white, according to the superintendent.

To meet the demands of its increasing enrollment, the district added 22 classrooms last September and is building 26 more. The students who will fill the classrooms are from India, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

For many school districts, establishing bilingual or English for Speakers of Other Languages programs is the first step toward meeting the needs of new students. In districts experiencing marked increases in immigration, language programs are the most rapidly growing services.

Some districts also are engaged in intensive staff-development efforts to better prepare teachers to work with diverse students, although training offerings in many districts are restricted by tight budgets.

Administering the state and federal money for which they are now eligible as a result of the demographic changes also is a relatively new experience for some school officials.

"I often think it is not understood that where you have diversity, there is also complexity," said George H. Daniel, superintendent of the Bound Brook schools in Somerset County, N.J. "There are far more regulations, more paperwork, more documentation to do in terms of your funding."

More than 20 percent of Bound Brook's 1,300 students are Hispanic; a decade ago, the central New Jersey district served predominantly white, middle-class students.

Mr. Daniel said the district has been hard-pressed to hire fully certified bilingual teachers. Instead, it often hires teachers with provisional certification who then complete their coursework.

In addition to meeting mandates requiring bilingual education to be offered, the district must comply with regulations requiring smaller classes for disadvantaged students--which "either doubles or triples our cost for teacher salaries, depending on the numbers," Mr. Daniel said.

While the school district receives some compensatory federal and state funding, the superintendent said, the district lost $1 million in state aid this year. The loss drove property taxes up 19 percent.

"Politically, it's far more difficult to finance schools when you are dealing with children from disadvantaged backgrounds," Mr. Daniel said, "because the rest of the community isn't always anxious to come up with the extra dollars."

The Bellevue school district received $357,000 from Washington State this year for language programs, but is spending $906,000 for that purpose, according to Howard M. Johnson, the district's assistant superintendent for business services.

Two years ago, the district spent $600,000 on such programs and recovered $200,000 from the state.

"We have to meet the needs of these youngsters," Mr. Johnson said, "and we can't teach them until we can communicate with them."

"It's just a costly enterprise, and it's not nearly as efficient as if we had students speaking one or two languages," he explained. "Instead, we have to hire individual tutors and interpreters for messages."

The rapidly growing Gwinnett County, Ga., school district, outside Atlanta, remains 90 percent white. But the 65,000-student district began an ESOL program in 1988 to meet the needs of the approximately 5 percent of its students whose first language is not English.

Since then, the number of students served by the program has more than tripled, from 220 to almost 700, according to Elizabeth Rieken, coordinator of the district's foreign-language and ESOL. programs.

The county has attracted a diverse mix of new residents, some of whom work for large multinational or foreign companies headquartered in Gwinnett. Some are refugees fleeing the political and economic turmoil of Central America, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe.

To better prepare Gwinnett County teachers to work with such a wide range of students, a district "action team" has proposed beginning an extensive training program for staff members. Ms. Rieken, who served on the team, called the training recommendation the district's "top priority" for the future.

"Imagine getting used to a new culture where you don't even know what the food in the cafeteria is," Ms. Rieken said. "A lot of [the new students'] parents have to work two to three jobs to make ends meet. It puts children in a position where they have to grow up very quickly."

Such programs are vital to helping suburban teachers work with language-minority or disadvantaged students, experts say, because many have taught for years and have little experience with such pupils.

The Glendale, Calif., school district, where students speak about 60 different languages, has "invested lots of resources" in teacher-training and staff-development programs to help teachers work better with the diverse student population, said Mr. Empey, the superintendent.

The training programs range from general discussions of the immigrant ancestry of nearly all Americans to specific information about various immigrant groups, according to Alice Petrossian, the district's director of intercultural education.

Teachers discuss the cultural or religious attitudes that keep some parents at arm's distance from the schools, or that prohibit students from wearing shorts during gym class or attending the prom with a date, she explained.

The sessions also include information on instructional methods that have been found to be especially successful with minority pupils, such as cooperative learning. Glendale teachers themselves have created most of the materials used in the workshops, according to Ms. Petrossian, and often host "make and take" sessions in which other teachers can duplicate the materials.

Mark Desetti, president of the Glendale Teachers Association, noted that teachers have had to attend many of the sessions on their own time or in paid in-service meetings on Saturdays.

The union is pushing to have more of the training done during the school day, during the pupil-free days allowed by the state, he said.

Finding the time and money for staff development has proved no easier in other school districts.

Mark Simon, president of the Montgomery County Education Association in Maryland, pointed out that local politicians there, who are feeling the heat from a taxpayer revolt and a severe budget crunch, are talking about spending less on education just as students' needs are becoming greater.

In order to work successfully with a broad range of students, Mr. Simon said, teachers need more time to prepare for class, to consult with their colleagues, and to tailor their instruction to fit pupils' experiences.

"Montgomery County has much too highly centralized a school system for the diversity we're encountering," he argued. "The tragic thing is that the diversity in the student population can be such an asset to the teaching process."

Elsewhere in the Maryland suburbs outside the nation's capital, Prince George's County also has begun offering a series of workshops for teachers to sensitize them to the needs of the county's minority students and to help them begin using multicultural materials.

Between 1980 and 1990, as the black population there increased by 50 percent and the white population dropped by 20 percent, blacks gained a majority in Prince George's County. The middle-class status of most of the county's residents makes Prince George's unique among suburbs with large numbers of minority residents, demographers say.

But it also has complicated efforts to carry out a court order requiring the schools to be desegregated, according to district officials.

Under the leadership of John A. Murphy, the outgoing superintendent, the district created a system of magnet schools to attract white students to predominantly black schools. There are also 16 all-black schools that are receiving compensatory funding in lieu of being desegregated.

Mr. Murphy said he believes Prince George's has exhausted the possibilities for transferring students to achieve racial balance.

"You just have so many white kids to spread around, and that's running out now," Mr. Murphy said. "The constant movement of children isn't going to be the answer to resolving the desegregation question. It's time we began to focus more on learning outcomes."

"The whole purpose of the integration movement," he continued, "was to provide youngsters with equal access to a quality education, but in many cases we've given them equal access to each other, not to quality education."

Mr. Murphy said he also believes attitudes are "a main handicapping condition" preventing some disadvantaged children from succeeding.

"A lot of time, energy, and effort has to go into changing those attitudes, so you look at youngsters on an even playing field," the superintendent said.

Changing attitudes toward disadvantaged children or children of color may be the most difficult task suburban school districts face as they begin to grapple with diversity.

Mr. Orfield, the University of Chicago professor, said some teachers "attribute to people on racial terms a class background that is just not accurate for middle-class kids. It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Franklin D. Jackson, a black lawyer who works in Washington and lives in Prince George's County, said he believes it is a "national phenomenon" for people to expect less of blacks.

Although Mr. Jackson, who has two children in the county's public schools, is generally supportive of the district, he is concerned that many of the teachers in his children's elementary school were teaching there when it was predominantly white 10 years ago. The student population at the school is now 80 percent black.

"There's a difference in the learning styles and the attitudes and the behaviors of children now from 10 years ago," Mr. Jackson said.

While his daughter praises her teacher, Mr. Jackson said, his son, an honor-roll student, gets C's in conduct and does not feel comfortable around his teacher.

"He feels like he's being watched, not nurtured," the lawyer said. "He has never expressed to me that he's had a teacher who likes him and cares about him and wants him to do well, and that concerns me."

Vol. 10, Issue 34, Pages 1, 15-16

Published in Print: May 15, 1991, as Newly Diverse Suburbs Facing City-Style Woes
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