Anyone who wants to glimpse the future of America’s school-age population can look to California. Today, a majority of the schoolchildren in the Golden State are members of a minority group. But as the demographer Harold L. Hodgkinson likes to say, “What’s happening in California is coming to a high school near you.”
Although the minority population will remain concentrated in a relative handful of states, demographers project that all but two states—Arkansas and Mississippi—will see an increase in their minority enrollments between now and 2015.
Today, about 65 percent of the nation’s school-age youngsters are non-Hispanic whites. But that figure will drop to 56 percent by 2020 and to under half by 2040. At that point, a majority of school-age children in the United States will be members of “minority” groups.
“Clearly, the term ‘minority’ will become anachronistic very soon,” argues Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, a co- director of the Harvard Immigration Project. “It’s already anachronistic in California, where there is no single majority group.”
The largest growth will occur among Hispanics. Between 1999 and 2010, Hispanics are projected to account for 43 percent of U.S. population growth. The Hispanic school-age population is predicted to increase about 60 percent in the next 20 years; and by 2025, nearly one in four school-age youngsters will be Hispanic.
The Asian and Pacific-Islander population will also increase by about 64 percent over the next 20 years, but starting from a much smaller base. The proportion of the school-age population that is Asian non-Hispanic is estimated at 4 percent in 2000 and is projected to rise to 6.6 percent in 2025. Meanwhile, the percentage of the school-age population that is African-American or Native American is predicted to remain relatively stable.
Are the public schools prepared for the growing diversity? Probably not. “From an educational standpoint, the states in general, and certainly mine, in particular, have really not prepared for this influx of new students,” says Sonia Hernandez, the deputy superintendent of curriculum and instruction for the California Department of Education, “not just in sheer numbers, but also in the special needs that they bring to the classroom.”
Those needs, she says, include linguistic challenges, structures to move children into the mainstream curriculum, recruitment of minority teachers, and outreach to parents.
In 1998, according to a survey by the federal Education Department, only one in five public school teachers said they felt prepared to address the needs of students with limited English proficiency or from diverse cultural backgrounds.
As with anything else, however, diversity is not evenly distributed across the country. As Hodgkinson points out, just 220 of the nation’s more than 3,100 counties account for about 80 percent of the diversity in American schools today. And the projections are that California, Florida, New York, and Texas will continue to handle most of the nation’s multiethnic, multiracial population well into the future.
“I have a friend in South Dakota, he’s a superintendent,” remarks Hodgkinson, “and he declared last year ‘ethnic diversity year,’ and said that every student in his schools was going to have one black friend. Well, that meant every black student was going to have to have 298 white friends.”
But while the bulk of diversity will likely remain concentrated in a small number of states and relatively few counties, the spilling out of immigrants and new ethnic groups across the landscape will be pervasive enough that many districts will have student enrollments that are noticeably different from those in the past.
“If you look at the Latino population of the United States, historically it’s been hyperconcentrated in five states: California, Texas, Illinois, New York, and Florida,” says Suarez- Orozco of Harvard University. “Yet, if you turn to other parts of the country, you really see the beginnings of a transformation that is simply unprecedented in U.S. history.”
In Alabama, he notes, the number of students with limited English proficiency grew by 429 percent from 1990 to 1997, the most recent data available. In Kansas, the number grew by 205 percent; in North Carolina, by 440 percent; in Kentucky, by 208 percent.
“So what we see is a real fanning out from the traditional regions of the country, through secondary migrations and sometimes through primary migration, into the Sun Belt, into the South, into the Midwest,” says Suarez-Orozco, “places that really, traditionally, didn’t see Spanish-speaking children in these numbers.”
Two of the forces driving interstate migration are jobs and the quality of life. The Omaha, Neb., public schools have seen their population of limited-English-proficient students soar from 500 in 1992 to at least 3,000 this school year. In addition to Hispanics, the community has a sizable population of Nuer immigrants from southern Sudan, who fled their country’s civil war.
“We have a lot of beef-packing plants in Omaha,” explains Susan M. Mayberger, the assistant supervisor of English-as-a- second-language programs for the 45,000-student district. “We have a very low unemployment rate, and housing costs that are lower than in other parts of the country.” Once families arrive, friends and relatives soon follow.
To address the needs of its evolving enrollment, the Omaha district is training teachers and paraprofessionals to work with students whose primary language is not English. About 25 paraprofessionals, many of them bilingual, are also involved in a career-ladder program to become teachers.