Immigration and Diversity:The Next Generation

Introduction by Glenn Cook

Our public schools mirror our nation, reflecting society’s mores and values and creating opportunities for future generations. And today’s generation of students is more diverse and mobile than ever.

Almost half of the record 50 million students entering U.S. schools this fall are minorities, according to the National Center on Education Statistics. One in five is Hispanic, the result of record immigration and a simultaneous, decade-long baby boom in rural, suburban, and urban communities.

For this series, ASBJ’s editors examined how this new wave of diversity -- and the cultures, languages, experiences, and outlooks it brings -- affects school districts. From Arizona to Maine, Georgia to Washington state, and places in between, these stories show how school leaders maneuver beyond the daily challenges of teaching children whose parents fled their home countries with the hope and promise of a better life.

During this historic presidential campaign, John McCain and Barack Obama are paying considerable attention to immigration reform and its effect on national security and the economy. But little time and limited resources have been spent on the vexing, daily obstacles that educators face in working with English language learners (ELLs) -- especially those of Hispanic origin.

In 1946, five Latino parents sued a white private school for admission and won, leading to the desegregation of all California schools. The case, Mendez v. Westminster, set a path for 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against “separate but equal” schools. Still, more than four decades after districts stopped overtly defying the Brown order, achievement and opportunity gaps persist for both Hispanic and African-American students.

Today, according to the Schott Foundation for Public Education, fewer than half of black males receive diplomas with their cohort. Dropout rates remain disproportionately high for Hispanic males as well. And Hispanic and African-Americans, especially those in urban centers, are the minorities most likely to be in high-poverty, low-performing schools with inexperienced, noncertified teachers.

Amid this crisis and calls for a variety of ill-defined and inflexible school reforms, some signs are encouraging, especially for the immigrant children. Last month, federal Judge William Wayne Justice ruled that the Texas Education Agency is not meeting its “obligation to remedy the language deficiencies” of Spanish-speaking students. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund called Justice’s ruling the “most comprehensive legal decision concerning the civil rights of English language learners in the last 25 years.”

The ruling is timely. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the number of school-age children of immigrants will grow from 12.3 million in 2005 to 17.9 million by 2020. This jump will account for all of the projected growth in the nation’s school-age population, with rural communities expected to face the most dramatic changes. Researchers predict a large percentage of these children, even those born in the U.S., will likely need ELL services.

As you will see on the following pages, the challenges and changes presented by immigration and diversity permeate our nation, our communities, and our schools. For school leaders, there is no room -- legal or otherwise -- for division. And, like all other facets of public education, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

There is hope, however. For more than 200 years, we have adapted to newcomers who arrive on our shores and emerged stronger and better for the experience. The transition has not always been smooth or comfortable, but in an increasingly global world, the value we place in our nation’s diversity cannot be underestimated.

Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief 

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