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Schools’ Changing Faces

Educators are on the front lines of a seismic shift in the makeup of America’s public schools.

NEA President Reg Weaver talking to studentsWith a makeup of Hispanic, Anglo, and Russian cultures, the city of Woodburn is a case study in diversity and acceptance. Located 35 miles south of Portland, Oregon, this small agricultural town takes pride in being known as the “City of Unity.”

In the downtown area, Mexican import shops, bakeries, and restaurants flourish. And nearby, Russian immigrants work their farms. In this community, where two-thirds of the students are English-language learners, meeting the needs of a diverse student population is a constant balancing act.

Over time, this school district has undergone a transformation, and it is not alone. In one rural district in Arkansas, students now speak 16 different languages, while the Houston Independent School District—the nation’s seventh-largest public school system, with more than 210,000 students—is home to more than 80 languages.

In the last 30 years, a seismic shift has occurred in America’s classrooms. Since 1980, the number of minority students enrolled in public schools has grown dramatically. The number of Hispanic students increased by 61 percent, the highest growth rate of any ethnic group. The Black student population grew by 16 percent, and other minority groups increased by 49 percent.

In some districts, the growth in minority student enrollment is more visible than in others. But diversity is our future, regardless of where you teach or work. Forty-five percent of the nation’s children under 5 are racial or ethnic minorities, so the sweeping tide of change is inevitable.

Today’s educators are expected not only to teach a more diverse student body than ever before, but also to help all children reach high achievement standards. Public schools are at the center of this demographic trend, and we are on the front lines in figuring out how to respond to this new reality.

Many of the issues faced by educators in Woodburn are mirrored in schools across the country. The question of how to integrate the diverse cultures of students effectively in the classroom and into the curriculum and school programs is on the minds of NEA members from North Carolina to Nebraska.

First and foremost, we have to see the changing faces—and voices—in America’s public schools as an asset, not a hurdle to overcome. We must actively work to understand the cultures of our students in a meaningful way, and recognize the beliefs, values, and behaviors that shape their learning experiences.

Team NEA, as you gear up for an exciting new year, let’s recommit to giving every child our best, each and every day. High expectations yield high achievement, and we should accept nothing less.

It is also important to expose children to a diverse teaching staff within each of our schools. Every child has a basic right to a great public school with a qualified and caring staff, including educators who look like them, who share similar cultural experiences, and who can serve as role models demonstrating that education and achievement are things to be respected. 

Where school districts are having success, they embrace the spirit of diversity by taking concrete steps to respond to change. They create policies to strengthen professional development programs with an emphasis on cultural competency and mentoring. They focus on the targeted recruitment of faculty of color. And they develop partnerships with minority communities to learn more about their students’ cultures.

Diversity is—and has always been—one of this country’s greatest strengths. As educators, we have a responsibility to be leaders in creating classrooms that are fair and inclusive, and that advance this nation’s most treasured ideals. If not now, when?

Have a great year, and thank you for all you do to make great public schools a reality for all children and students!

—Reg Weaver

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