The rainbow school system has arrived

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This coming school year, the United States will, for the first time, have more students of color than white students in its public schools. American Indian enrollment has stayed largely flat, Asian American enrollment has increased slightly, black enrollment has ticked slightly downward, and Hispanic enrollment has steadily increased to nearly one in four students countrywide.

Of course, this looks somewhat different in each state and district. Here’s Minnesota and two of its districts, for example.

(Data from Minnesota Department of Education)

Minnesota is somewhat behind the national trend, with more than seven out of every ten students still white. However, some districts have already passed the milestone while others are almost there. For example, the Osseo Public Schools (a suburban district northwest of Minneapolis) had white enrollment of 49.2% last school year, with black and Asian enrollments appreciably higher than the statewide picture. A little south and mostly west of Mankato is the St. James school district, where the white enrollment is only slightly higher (in percentage terms) than Osseo’s, but where nearly all the students of color are Hispanic.

These variations between states and districts make for a more nuanced picture than simply saying, “White students are making up less and less of the student body with each passing year.” The ways St. James responds to its changing student demographics will and should be different, at least in some respects, from those Osseo takes. While some steps — building staff members’ cultural awareness and responsiveness skills, for instance — should be universal, each district will need to do its own outreach to its many constituent communities to ensure their voices are respected in the schools.

And, of course, there are more layers. Consider a student whose parents came to Minnesota from Liberia five years ago, a student whose parents came from Somalia fifteen years ago, and a student whose grandparents came from Alabama fifty years ago. All three students would still be identified as “black,” even though their experiences are likely to be dramatically different. We need teachers and school leaders who are prepared to invite all families and students into their schools and collaborate with their communities to provide equitable educations for all.

The numbers tell much of this story but they don’t tell all of it.