SOUTH GATE, Calif. — In the halls of the International Studies Learning Center, a high school with a global emphasis in the Los Angeles Unified School District, classrooms are not numbered but labeled by country or continent — Italy, Japan, France, Americas, Asia and so on.
But the students milling about the modern campus in no way mirror the diversity of the curriculum. They are 99.9 percent Latino. Schools in this Los Angeles County city southeast of downtown L.A. are a living example — albeit an extreme one — of a demographic revolution in public school enrollment across the country.
The U.S. Department of Education last month said the nation reached a milestone: For the first time, white students enrolled in K–12 public schools are in the minority nationwide.
“This fall, as we prepare for a new school year, we face a seminal moment in public education,” according to a statement by Raymonde Charles, deputy press secretary at the Department of Education. “For anyone who has made the mistake of believing that the challenges of black and brown communities are someone else’s problem — a minority problem — that day is over.”
Minority has become majority in school districts throughout the U.S., from rural areas in the Midwest to suburban districts in New England.
“We’ve been predicting this for a long time,” said Gary Orfield, a co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California at Los Angeles. “The truth is that the two largest areas in the U.S., the South and West, have been predominantly minority for a while.” About 60 percent of public school students in the West are nonwhite, said Orfield, who teaches education, law, political science and urban planning.
“It’s something people in this country need to reflect on,” he added. “I don’t think it means the country is suddenly changing. It means that many people are waking up and recognizing a change.”
‘For anyone who has made the mistake of believing that the challenges of black and brown communities are someone else’s problem – a minority problem – that day is over.’
deputy press secretary, Department of Education
The influx of immigrants from Mexico, Central America and Asia to parts of the country that have not traditionally been immigrant destinations are putting pressure on schools that may not have had English as a second language (ESL) programs a generation ago.
“We made some progress in recent years on high school graduation levels, which is good, but there’s still a big gap [between whites and people of color] … A lot of schools have very few people who come from these backgrounds, very few people who have been trained in race relations,” Orfield said.
More than 66 percent of students in Kansas public schools are nonwhite, according to the Kansas state Department of Education.
In Garden City, in the heart of Kansas’ meatpacking industry, 78 percent of public school students are people of color. Most are Hispanic, but there has been an influx of Vietnamese, Somali and Burmese immigrants.
“There are 26 different languages spoken,” said Roy Cessna, public information coordinator with Garden City Public Schools. In the past five years, the district has pushed for ESL certification for all teachers. “Forty-seven percent of the student body are second-language learners,” he said. “We encourage every teacher to be certified.”
In 1988 two-thirds of Garden City’s students were non-Hispanic white; 10 years later, whites had slipped into the minority, below 42 percent of enrollment. The schools had to establish a newcomer program for immigrant students — up to six months in an acclimation program.
Other communities are coming up with different plans. In Dodge City, Kansas, the district did away with neighborhood schools that tended to segregate students by race and economic strata. “We had the poor schools on the poor side of town, the minority schools on the minority side of town,” said Alan Cunningham, superintendent of Dodge City Unified School District. “All of a sudden, we were faced with integrating nontraditional Dodge Citians.”
‘We made some progress in recent years on high school graduation levels, which is good, but there’s still a big gap. A lot of schools have very few people who come from these backgrounds, very few people who have been trained in race relations.’
co-director, UCLA’s Civil Rights Project
Now parents choose which school they want their kids to attend. “We decided we would open enrollment in all of our schools,” Cunningham said. “Our nine elementary schools are virtually identical in terms of ethnicity.” The same is true in the district’s three other schools.
About 80 percent of students are Hispanic, and for 56 percent, their first language is not English. More than half the district’s 440 teachers have received additional certification to teach those students. The district has increased diversity in the classroom by hiring Spanish-speaking parents — many of whom are first- or second-generation Latinos — to assist teachers.
Forgive educators in Los Angeles for reacting with a big shrug. Whites have not been in the majority there since the 1970s, when desegregation policies were in place, said Holly Priebe-Diaz, intervention coordinator with the Office of Human Relations, Diversity and Equity in the Los Angeles school district. “Right now we have 73.4 percent Latinos, 10 percent blacks, 8.8 percent whites, 3.9 percent Asians,” she said. “These stats have been pretty static for 10 years.”
But even in L.A., adapting to change is constant. Priebe-Diaz’s office did not exist before 2005. And the district — where more than 640,000 students are enrolled in 1,200 schools spread out over a staggering 700 square miles — is dealing with different dynamics in every school.
At the International Studies Learning Center, a high school and middle school developed with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation but now fully financed by the school district, the goal is to help students from lower socioeconomic neighborhoods gain the cultural and educational breadth to compete in a global economy. It’s one of 37 such schools in the U.S.
“We want them to see more than just L.A. and South Gate,” said Principal Guillermina Jauregui. “In every class we really look at global competition, and we have different projects where students are investigating the world.” The majority of students were born here but may come from homes where parents don’t speak English. Some programs take students to China and Japan. “My philosophy is that if I can’t take you to the world, I bring the world to you,” she said.
But whether students are white, black or brown, they will be evaluated on the basis of a controversial new standard of teaching now in effect in 48 states. Common Core State Standards traded state-by-state measures for a uniform guide for what math and language arts skills students at each grade level should have. Schools decide how teachers get students to reach the goals.
‘My philosophy is that if I can’t take you to the world, I bring the world to you.’
principal, International Studies Learning Center
Opponents of Common Core say it’s federal overreach because it’s a curriculum that imposes one approach.
Jauregui disagrees. “We were stuck on 2 plus 2 equals 4. Our new way is how to think critically,” she said. “What we have to say is that it’s not about ‘I taught them, and they didn’t learn.’ It’s really about teaching approach. One-size-fits-all no longer works … The pressure’s on all to do something.”
While school districts newer to the demographic upheaval that is changing the color of classrooms are adjusting to increased diversity, Jauregui’s schools are grappling with a reverse challenge: How to make classes more inclusive to non-Latinos.
Antonia Guzmán, an English language arts teacher and journalism adviser, said she had a disaffected Anglo student in a class. “Whenever we talked about racism, she felt uncomfortable,” she said. “Our kids here are secluded. Their impression is that the rest of the world looks like them.”
The rest of the country should get prepared for the same. “Today’s schoolchildren are a window to where our nation is headed this century,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “We need to be prepared for a multiracial future, and that begins with preparing these children for success.”