Growing minority enrollment forces schools to adapt

Howard expected to follow Baltimore County into minority-majority status soon

  • Howard County Councilman Calvin Ball and his wife, Shani, are having their daughters taught foreign languages: Chinese for Alexis, 7, and Spanish for Alyssa, 3.
Howard County Councilman Calvin Ball and his wife, Shani, are… (Baltimore Sun photo by Karl…)
February 22, 2010|By Larry Carson |

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.

"Howard County is a magnet for kids from all over the world. We have students from 77 different countries," most speaking different languages, said Sydney L. Cousin, Howard's school superintendent and the first African-American to hold the job. "We have to think differently. This is not 1989."

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.

Last school year, white students made up just 4.7 percent of Prince George's enrollment and 7.8 percent of Baltimore's. They accounted for 46.2 percent of students statewide.

Overall, white students still represent 52.8 percent of Howard's enrollment, though that majority has been declining several percentage points each year. In 2004, whites were a 64.7 percent majority.

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 surprises me, because I don't see it in this area," said Laura Mullen, whose family lives in Timonium and whose other child, Lea, 20, attends Ridge Ruxton School for children with developmental disabilities.

"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."

In Howard, change has been driven more by a slow decline in whites and a burgeoning Asian enrollment that has increased by nearly half in the past six years. Ten Howard elementary schools, mostly in Ellicott City and Clarksville, are a quarter or more Asian-American. At Hollifield Station, near Patapsco Valley State Park, 42 percent of the children, the largest single group, are Asian-American.

Sue Song, president of the Korean American Association of Howard County, has seen the trend develop during her 25 years in Maryland.

"It is the reputation that Howard County has the best school system" that brings Korean families, she 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.

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