A Final Thought

Two Small Districts

Something has changed over the last 15 years, I have been carrying out annual demographic upgrades for a small school district in New York. It is a district that has been growing as Latinos, working on jobs in the area, enrolled their children in the schools. The district, which at one time had been more than 90 percent white, was undergoing a profound change, and normal means of predicting population change were not providing accurate information.

Following the lead of The Grier Partnership, outstanding demographers with whom I had worked in other districts, I found that by looking separately at births to Latino families and non-Latino, and by tracking the number of Latino children in school, I could make much more accurate projections than when I simply looked at births and at students without any ethnic break. There was no value judgment involved; simply a recognition that births and school completion rates can vary among various ethnic groups.

Now something new is happening. The Latino population, which had been somewhat transient, taking on available jobs and leaving the community when the jobs were not available, has been settling in. Men who had been hired to work on lawns and help out on construction jobs have purchased equipment, set up their own businesses and hired people to work for them. Like any business, they seek work all year long and remain in the area. Stores and restaurants catering specifically to their needs have opened to serve them.

More recently, the school district clerk noticed that many families are now changing their addresses and are no longer living in rented houses and apartments, but have purchased their own homes, reinforcing the fact that the Latino population is now a permanent part of the community.

One result is that over the past three years I have noticed that it made no difference whether I projected Latino and non-Latino populations separately, or whether I looked at the school district population as a whole. It appears that now that the Latino population has become a settled part of the community, birth patterns and school completion rates are almost identical to those of white and other populations in the community. If one wants a phrase, they have become “middle class” with the same habits and aspirations as other middle class residents of the community.

I come at this as a school demographer, not as a sociologist. But I suspect I am observing in this little school district a pattern that has been so important to the growth of our nation as each ethnic or national group has come here, settled in with relatives, started at the economic bottom and worked its way into the American middle class. In this one small community, at least, they are here to stay. And that is making an importance difference for the community and its schools.

Programs of Excellence

In another district, I have been helping to look at the facility implications in a small city school district working to create focused high school “programs of excellence.” The expectation is that by creating special four-year programs attractive to motivated science and technology-oriented students, and six-year programs for students interested in the performing and fine arts, the district can increase its holding power and improve the educational opportunities for all of its students. The programs would be conducted in two smaller school buildings, not in the existing high school.

Establishing programs of excellence in science and technology (STEAM) to hold and attract top students, and establishing programs in the creative, performing and fine arts for creative students makes sense, especially in an urban setting where the best students are often lured away by charter and private schools that cherry-pick students. But it seems to me that it is not enough.

What happens to students who do not qualify or are not interested in these particular programs of excellence? What happens to a good student — or a marginal one — who is not attracted to science and technology or qualified for a program in performing or fine arts? Can those two special programs be coupled with other programs of excellence not so easily identified, perhaps world studies, emphasizing languages, or public service, including economics, law and how our nation works? Can a program of excellence be provided for students who choose to go directly from high school into the workforce?

Programs of excellence should be available to every student. It’s wonderful to be talented and to be able to qualify for a specialized program but it is also important to assure that students who do not qualify for those programs feel that they, too, are enrolled in programs of excellence.

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."

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