By the start of classes in August 2011, white students in Howard County are expected to be a minority, joining those in Baltimore County. The two school systems are riding a demographic wave that carries broad implications for how students are taught.
Baltimore County two years ago joined Baltimore City and Montgomery, Prince George’s, Charles and Somerset counties as Maryland jurisdictions where minorities outnumber white students in public schools, although the development was little noticed at the time.
In those districts and others, the trend is sparking intensive efforts to shape children from all backgrounds into eager, high-achieving students. And that’s just what is going on in Howard, school officials say.
Growing diversity is a national phenomenon, and school enrollments are where the change can be the most visible, experts say.
“Across the country, we’ve seen in the last 15 years immigrants moving into suburban areas that we haven’t seen before,” said Audrey Singer, a senior fellow on demographics and immigration at the Brookings Institution in Washington. The Baltimore metro area “has seen a big uptick,” she said.
“Statewide, the population is clearly becoming more minority,” agreed Mark Goldstein, an economist and state planner who follows trends. “All of the net change [in population] is due to minority growth. That is increasingly true as we go through the decade,” he said.
Driven mostly by changes in Maryland’s largest jurisdictions, white students became a minority group statewide during the 2004-2005 school year.
African-Americans are the second-largest, at 22.1 percent, and the percentage is still growing. Asians, by contrast, were 11.9 percent of the total in 2004, but have grown to 16.3 percent this year. Hispanics make up 5.8 percent of Howard students this year, up from 3.6 percent six years ago.
Even though Baltimore County is two years past the milestone, many parents and students hardly notice, and many individual county schools are still mostly white.
Hayley Mullen, 14, who is a white student in Baltimore County, says the change isn’t evident at her school, Ridgely Middle, where white students are 74 percent of the total, and the news surprised her parents, Laura and Tim. But the transformation has been taking place for years.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” Hayley said. “It never occurred to me that we were the majority,” she said, explaining that her classmates at school mix easily without thinking about their race or ethnic origins.
That might be the most profound meaning of the change, some observers say–that increasingly, young people are less concerned with the traditional racial groupings and divisions.
“I think the old patterns in the world will melt away,” said Joe A. Hairston, Baltimore County’s school superintendent for the past decade and, like his Howard counterpart, the first African-American to hold his job.
“It’s not about Baltimore County or Howard County. It’s about the world. Our kids are going to be competing against kids in other countries,” Hairston said. “They get it. I see [race] becoming irrelevant.”
“It is the reputation that Howard County has the best school system” that brings Korean families, she [Sue Song, president of the Korean American Association of Howard County] said. “Now we have a fair amount coming directly from Korea here.”
Cousin and Hairston said the influx of immigrant families requires more teachers for students without English proficiency and other specialized programs.
Because of the changing demographics, Howard schools have put a plethora of programs in place, ranging from those aimed at newly arrived immigrants and preschoolers to efforts to get more African-American high-schoolers involved with honors courses and college preparatory tests.
Howard system spokeswoman Patti Caplan said the county is placing increasing emphasis on its Black Student Achievement Program to boost standardized test scores for African-American students.
Schools in Howard, as well as in Baltimore County, print materials for parents in multiple languages, mostly Spanish, Korean and Chinese, as part of the campaign to get parents involved. Howard has an employee dedicated to making connections with Hispanic students’ families. Leadership forums are held to encourage involvement among parents unaccustomed to participating in their children’s educations.
There are teacher mentors who help new hires understand children from different cultural backgrounds and how to reach them and their parents. Seminars, after-school workshops and daily help from mentors are all part of that effort.
A “Summer Bridge” program, designed for African-American students, encourages eighth-graders to try for Advanced Placement courses in high school. And a Bridge Center for students newly arrived to the U.S. provides a 15-day transition to county schools. A social worker and a teacher follow each student for six months as they work to fit in.
Overall, whites this year comprise 47.8 percent of Baltimore County’s total enrollment, while blacks represent 40.6 percent, Asians 6.1 percent and Hispanics 5 percent. Six years ago, white students were a 56 percent majority.
The changes in Baltimore County, for decades a destination for white families fleeing Baltimore City, come despite earlier strife, such as the 1994 race-fueled hysteria that swept the county’s east side over a federal housing program aimed at moving poor blacks out of central Baltimore.
The housing program was killed by Congress, but black families have since moved on their own into the older southeastern and southwestern county neighborhoods, and school enrollments reflect that. The auditorium of Hawthorne Elementary in Middle River was the scene of a raucous, shouting protest during that 1994 turmoil by white residents who feared the federal Moving to Opportunity program would send thousands of poor city black families to eastern Baltimore County. The school is now 60 percent black, with 306 black students to 230 white students.
“A school system is not just about educating kids. It’s about resources, staff and faculty. As the percentage of whites decreases, it increases the degree to which other groups want that to be more representative,” he [Lester Spence, assistant professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University] said.
And although attitudes might be changing, they haven’t yet been totally transformed. “The presence of African-Americans means something very different than other nonwhite groups,” said Spence, adding that sometimes white flight results. “These other groups don’t have the same type of weight in the white psyche.”