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State's schools get more diverse

The Baltimore Sun

The faces of Maryland's public school children have quietly been changing over the past several years, and minorities - primarily Hispanics, Asians and African-Americans - now outnumber white students in the state.

Maryland public school enrollment data show that 48 percent of the students in the state's 24 school systems are white. African-Americans represent 38 percent of the school population, Hispanics 8 percent and Asian-Americans most of the remaining 6 percent.

The shift officially took place in 2004, after both a decline in the number of white students and growth in the number of minorities. But schools have been adapting to the change over several years - expanding classes for non-English speakers, bringing in translators for parent nights and creating smaller classes in schools with large numbers of minority students.

At Dumbarton Middle School in the Rodgers Forge neighborhood of Baltimore County, 48 languages are spoken, and the school population is 38 percent minority.

In Howard County, the school system provided interpreters last month for 2,000 conferences between parents and teachers; 16 of the county's 38 elementary schools have a larger minority enrollment than white.

And at Frederick County High School, dozens of new students arrive every year who are not fluent in English; some have had little formal education in their home country.

"I think this is the future of America, the high degree of diversity we see in some of the urban states," said William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, pointing to the growing number of minorities, especially Latinos, in the U.S. population as a whole.

Maryland's total population is not majority nonwhite, but it is one of 15 states in which public school enrollment is predominantly minority. The changing demographics are a result of several factors, including a decline in the white birth rate and the departure of families for cheaper housing in Pennsylvania, according to Mark Goldstein of the Maryland Department of Planning.

From 2002 to 2006, Hispanic school enrollment statewide rose by 20,000 while white enrollment dropped by 40,000. That change mirrored a decline in the total population of white school-age children in the state and was not a result of parents transferring children into private schools, according to Goldstein.

Minorities outnumber whites in five school systems - Baltimore City and Montgomery, Prince George's, Charles and Somerset counties. Baltimore County is 50 percent minority as of Sept. 30. In many places where whites are still a majority, the number of Hispanic students has doubled or tripled since 1999. Garrett County, where 99 percent of students are white, seems the only jurisdiction exempt from the trend of diversification.

At many schools, cultural changes have seeped into virtually every routine - from parent meetings conducted in Chinese and Spanish to lunch tables divided not only into jocks and nerds but by the language spoken.

Nancy Fink, the principal at Dumbarton Middle, said the school has been learning how best to teach immigrant children - what the federal government calls English language learners. Once, she said, the school put all immigrant students in a classroom for a year to get them adjusted to American schools. Today, it pushes those who are ready into mainstream classrooms as quickly as it can.

Those students move first into math, "a symbolic language they have already known," Fink said, and then into science, social studies and, finally, language arts.

Dumbarton, a magnet school for English language learners, used to be filled primarily with Russian and Asian immigrants, often students who had received a good education before they arrived in this country.

Now, the school has nearly 200 English language learners, including refugees from Africa or Spanish-speaking countries who might not have had a formal education. Those students sometimes need to stay in separate classes much longer before they can move into a regular math or language arts classroom, she said.

In some cases, top students volunteer to help tutor the English language learners before school, giving them a chance to get to know one another.

The school also has begun providing training to help classroom teachers be sensitive to different cultures. Teachers learn, for instance, that some cultures discourage girls from speaking up in class, a fact that might not sit well with teachers used to rewarding students for class participation.

Frederick County, with a small but growing population of Hispanics and Burmese, has hired 100 new ELL teachers at a cost of about $500,000 annually over the past several years, said Superintendent Linda D. Burgee.

That is not a large percentage of her roughly $500 million budget, but she said there have been other costs, including buying additional materials, working with families, training teachers and providing interpreters.

Larry Steinly, the county's ELL supervisor, said the number of students needing language services increased from 500 to 1,200 in four years. About 10 percent of those students come to school with "no literacy in their first language," he said.

Administrators and teachers worry that despite their best efforts, such students - who are far behind and might be facing pressure from home to earn money - will drop out.

Irwin Kirsch, who wrote a report on changing demographics in schools for the Educational Testing Service, said he thinks school systems should be concerned about such students and their impact on society. Most immigrants to the United States used to be from Europe and came with a high school diploma and often college degrees, but that is no longer true.

"The literacy levels in the country are likely to go down slightly. We are likely to have a lower standard of living," Kirsch said.

Montgomery County is one of the state's most diverse school systems, with a student body that is 20.8 percent Hispanic, 23 percent African-American and 15 percent Asian. As schools began changing, some parents worried that having a majority of Hispanic or African-American students would be the "ruination" of the school system, said Blair Ewing, a member of the State Board of Education and a longtime member of the county school board.

"The parents got all worked up about it," Ewing said. But he said much of the concern was alleviated when the county stepped in and reduced the size of classes at schools with high minority and low-income populations. That benefited all students, he said.

While immigrant populations in the state have increased rapidly, the African-American population statewide has been growing slowly. But there have been shifts within the state.

Blacks increasingly have moved from Baltimore City to Baltimore County, for instance. Affluent black families also are moving out of Prince George's County into Charles County. Charles has responded by recruiting more black teachers and administrators, said Ronald Cunningham, deputy superintendent.

Ewing noted that education of children is not just what they learn in the classroom; schools should work on giving students from different cultures chances to work together, he said.

"There is a kind of tension within schools, and part of it is the result of kids being engaged in activities solely within their own culture," Ewing said.

For Arshai Bhatti, who graduated from Frederick County High in June, the segregation of students was a part of high school life.

Bhatti arrived at age 11 from Pakistan and by high school was taking Advanced Placement classes. She enjoyed school, she said, but her experiences were punctuated by nasty comments from students after the Sept. 11 attacks and a sense that some students were segregating themselves.

"They just sit in their own groups ... the Burmese, the Chinese, the Japanese, the whites," Bhatti said. She said her cafeteria table was the most diverse. "We were misfits, so we got together."

Ewing said schools need to realize they are an important part of the acculturation process.

"I think the schools have a big role here, and they need to take it seriously," he said, "at least to provide students with evidence that a school is a place that cares about them and wants them to succeed."

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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