America’s rainbow schools

The most diverse group of students ever will enter public schools this fall. With help from adults, they will shine.

Matt Rourke/AP/File
School superintendent Barry Tomasetti met with young students in a summer school class in Kennett Square, Pa., in July. For the first time ever US public schools are projected this fall to have more minority students enrolled than white, a shift largely fueled by growth in the numbers of Hispanic children.

America will pass a demographic milestone this fall when, for the first time, the majority of its public school students are expected to be nonwhite.

The percentage of white students, 63.4 percent as recently as 1997, is predicted to drop to 49.7 percent this school year.

While the percentage of black students has remained fairly constant in this period, schools have seen a big increase in Asian students and especially in Hispanic students, who now make up about one-quarter of the total.

Growing diversity in schools brings with it new challenges. More bilingual teachers are needed. Today, 83 percent of the nation’s 3.3 million public school teachers are white, with only 8 percent Hispanic, 7 percent African-American, and 2 percent Asian. While teaching positions should be filled based on performance, not racial quotas, school districts that bring more minorities into the ranks of their teachers will benefit.

Although America’s new student body is more diverse, it is also overwhelmingly home grown: From 1997 to 2013, for example, the number of US-born Hispanic children of school age leapt 98 percent, while the number of Hispanic immigrant children of school age declined 26 percent.

This new, more diverse school population is also a harbinger of 2043, when non-Hispanic whites are expected to become a minority of the US population as a whole.

America is already blessed with outstanding individuals from Hispanic, Asian, black, and other minority communities who have become leaders in every field from education, the sciences, and business to law and high political office. They represent only a first wave of the diverse talent and industry that will drive American progress throughout this century.

As America’s children head off to school, all adults need to invest in their futures – not only through their tax dollars but with their time and personal involvement, serving as caring parents, grandparents, teachers, administrators, volunteers, and mentors.

This investment will pay off for everyone: As well-educated, productive adult workers, today’s schoolchildren will be the taxpayers funding the Social Security and Medicare costs of tomorrow’s retirees.

But more important, these young learners will be writing the ongoing story of the American experiment, a story in which national unity is not based on ethnic or racial backgrounds but is forged from a common love of freedom, democracy, and mutual respect.

President George H.W. Bush has spoken of America as “brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light.”

Investing in a good education is a way to make sure those lights come on and shine in all their glorious American diversity.

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