August 27, 2008

Latino Students Shifting Classroom Demographics

By Stephen Wall

The faces throughout the nation's classrooms are turning brown.

Latinos now make up one in five public school students in America, according to a report released Tuesday by a nonprofit research organization.

The number of Latino students enrolled in public schools nearly doubled from 1990 to 2006, accounting for 60 percent of total growth in public school enrollments over that period, according to the analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center.

Ten million Latinos now attend the nation's public schools, making up 20 percent of all public school students, the report states.

The demographic shift is even more pronounced in California and in San Bernardino County, where Latinos comprise the majority in several local school districts.

Latinos make up about half of public school students in California, up from 36 percent in 1990, according to the report. Overall, Latinos are the largest minority group in the public schools in 22 states.

In San Bernardino County, the Latino student population jumped from 37 percent in 1994 to 56.4 percent this year, according to the California Department of Education.

The U.S. Census Bureau says the strong growth in Latino enrollment is expected to continue for decades. In 2050, there will be more school-age Latino children than school-age white children nationwide, the bureau projects.

The growth is being driven by a combination of high fertility rates and immigration, said Rick Fry, senior research associate at the Pew Hispanic Center and co-author of the report.

"Latino immigrants tend to come to this country as young adults, and that's the time when they tend to start having families," Fry said.

The vast majority of Latino public school students (84 percent) were born in the United States, according to the report.

Surprisingly, Fry said, the report found that less than one in five Latino students struggle to speak English.

"For the bulk of Hispanic public school students, English acquisition is not their educational challenge," Fry said.

The San Bernardino City Unified School District, which is two- thirds Latino, has implemented a bilingual/biliterate action plan to teach students the value of being proficient in more than one language.

Dual-immersion programs are offered to encourage English- speaking students to learn Spanish and Spanish-speaking students to learn English.

"It's a reality none of us can avoid," said school board President Teresa Parra. "We have a large Hispanic and Latino population. Do we ignore them and not educate them, so they later become part of our welfare and criminal justice system? Or do we educate them and help them contribute back to society? I'd rather find a positive way to help them become anything they choose to be."

Debbie Leance, an Inland Empire high school science teacher, said she welcomes the influx of Latino students.

"On one hand, I hear a lot of frustrations from teachers about their population of students," said Leance, who teaches English Language Learners. "But at the same time, we seem to be struggling as educators to step up to meet the needs of this very diverse population."

Felix Diaz, a board member in the Victor Valley Union High School District, acknowledges that some educators are unsettled by the demographic changes occurring on local campuses.

"A lot of people who have become teachers recently say it puts a strain on schools," said Diaz, who has worked in public education for 46 years. "But it gives teachers jobs. Also, when Hispanics move here and become students in our schools, we get that much more money from the state. I look at it as being a very positive situation."

Latinos in public schools

NATIONWIDE: 12.5 percent (1990), 20 percent (2006)

CALIFORNIA: 36 percent (1990), 49.6 percent (2006)

SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY: 37 percent (1994), 56.4 percent (2008)

Sources: Pew Hispanic Center, California Department of Education

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