With Maryland poised to welcome a record number of students as the new school year begins, many districts will be educating more minorities than they have in decades — if not ever.
Across Baltimore's suburbs, school districts are hiring more translators, updating policies and taking other steps to address the demographic shift that includes an influx of Hispanic and Asian students.
Howard County has worked to recruit more minority teachers. Baltimore County officials have placed social workers in every high school. And in Harford County, school employees must take a course titled "Education That is Multicultural in the Classroom of the 21st Century."
"I think school systems that put their head in the sand and say 'race doesn't matter' — you're being naive," said Dallas Dance, who has been Baltimore County schools superintendent since 2012 and has focused on getting school leaders to face the changing demographics.
In Baltimore County, which opens its public schools Monday, the student population has gone from 80 percent white to 40 percent white in 30 years. Over the past three years, the 108,000-student district has seen a decrease of 1,082 white students, according to state Department of Education data, while gaining 1,627 Hispanic students, 1,460 black students and 725 Asian students.
Gail Sunderman, director of the Maryland Equity Project in the College of Education at the University of Maryland, College Park, said districts aren't ready for the diversity they face.
Federal and state policies have led schools to focus on test scores of specific groups of students, including racial groups and special education students, she said. But that only encourages districts to aim to get students to pass tests — not to examine why they were failing them in the first place, she said.
"There's lot of pressures on districts, and one is accountability measures and that shapes a lot of what they do," Sunderman said. "That hasn't really gotten at the heart of it — it doesn't really encourage people to look at why those differences are there."
"We sort of have a tendency to say that education solves everything, and that's not true."
State officials expect the new school year to eclipse the overall enrollment record set in 2004, when 869,113 students attended public schools. Last year, 866,169 students attended public schools across Maryland, and based on a trend of 5,500 more students enrolling each year, officials are confident they will hit a new milestone.
The state's student population became majority-minority about a decade ago. Data show many districts in the Baltimore region — Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties — continue to educate fewer white students every year. In most cases, the number of students identified as African-American, Hispanic or Asian and students of two or more races has steadily increased.
In 2008, 48 percent of the students in Maryland's 24 school systems were white; African-Americans represented 38 percent of the school population, Hispanics 8 percent and Asian-Americans most of the remaining 6 percent.
Today, white students account for nearly 40 percent of the state's student population, and African-American students account for 35 percent. Hispanic and Asian students now make up 14 percent and 6 percent of the student population, respectively, and are steadily increasing, along with students who identify as two or more races.
For years, suburban districts have adjusted by covering the basics, such as hiring more teachers for English language learners and more translators for families. In some areas, efforts have gone further.
Early this month, a PowerPoint presentation for Baltimore County educators included an image of Dylan Storm Roof, the man who killed South Carolina Sen. Clementa Pinckney and eight other members of a historic black church, posing with a Confederate flag.
The slide, part of an "Equity in Action" presentation, also included references to a young child wearing a "Don't deport my mom" T-shirt and a bandana-clad protester running from police officers through the streets of Baltimore in April.
Dance said the presentation was designed to make educators aware of the issues the world brings into school every day.
He said he has had conversations with county's Board of Education about how policies could create disparities — pointing out that some schools offered only six class periods a day while others offered seven or eight; and questioning why schools in only certain parts of the county had access to Advanced Placement courses.
The board ultimately passed an equity policy that includes the reporting of achievement gaps, cultural responsiveness in curricula, and efforts to recruit underrepresented groups into more advanced academics. The policy also calls for any facilities plans to have "consideration of equitable access to 21st-century learning environments."
Equity, Dance said, is not just about every student having access to the same thing; it's about every student having what he or she needs to be successful.
This year, Dance hired 11 new teachers for English language learners, and will add 22 more in the next two years, but he also notes that the system has staffed every high school with a social worker as one way to help address demographic changes. Social workers, Dance said, have a unique role in helping students and families through issues that affect academic success.
"I had to remind people: What happened in Baltimore City — don't think Baltimore County can't go that way," he said. "If kids don't have hope, engagement, and see that the system is set up for them to be successful, then there's going to be a problem."
Anne Arundel County schools in recent years have seen one of the highest increases of Hispanic students. In the last 10 years, the district went from 5 percent Hispanic to just under 12 percent last year.
In addition to hiring more teachers for English language learners and bilingual facilitators, the district has drilled in on changing minds and hearts through training staff around the message of "unlocking potential."
"Some students feel that from the moment they walk into a school, they are limited," said Anne Arundel County schools spokesman Bob Mosier. "And we're focusing on making them believe anything is possible."
Since 2011, Howard County has enrolled 1,581 more Asian students, 952 more black students and 581 more Hispanic students. Meanwhile, it educated 1,415 fewer white students.
Spokeswoman Rebecca Amani-Dove said in a statement the district makes targeted efforts to recruit a diverse teaching staff. She cited hiring initiatives such as recruiting trips to universities with a large number of minority students and offering open-contract options to minority candidates for future vacancies.
In Harford County, officials have seen a decline in enrollment for the past three to five years, which they attribute to a poor economy that has led to a limited number of residential building permits and a reduction in home sales.
Still, the Harford school system of about 39,000 students has experienced the same trend of educating proportionately fewer white students. Last year 1,099 fewer white students were enrolled in the school system than three years ago. Over the same period, the system saw an increase of 255 Hispanic students, but the number of black students declined by 108.
Harford spokeswoman Jillian Lader described the system's demographic change as "slight," but said it has taken initiatives to adjust for the changing population. For example, employees are required to attend the "Education That is Multicultural" course, and Lader said the district's Office of Equity and Cultural Proficiency "works to ensure a smooth transition and encourage understanding and appreciation for all of our students, from all cultures."
In Carroll County, officials are planning more for student losses than gains. The district's enrollment has been on the decline for the last decade by about 400 students per year. An independent work group is studying enrollment trends and will make recommendations to the county's school board next month that could include closing school buildings.
When it comes to diversity, Carroll has experienced trends similar to the rest of the state — seeing a decline of about 1,400 white students over the past three years and an increase in Hispanic students. Superintendent Steve Guthrie said the shift has not required drastic changes within the school system. However, in recent years the county has hired more teachers for English language learners and increased the hours of its translators.
Baltimore City is also grappling with a slight decline in enrollment as it moves ahead with a $1 billion campaign to rebuild and renovate its aging infrastructure. The plan, which aims to account for the district's reduced student population, calls for closing 26 schools. The city is also planning to redraw school boundary lines in the next two years.
In contrast to county districts, data show the city is educating 1,500 fewer black students than in 2011, and picked up 275 white students and more than 2,000 Hispanic students.
City school officials did not respond to requests for comment.