- Associated Press - Saturday, November 1, 2014

LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) - Across the road from New Holland Elementary School, cornstalks stretch toward the sky, Amish children play baseball and silos dot the landscape in every direction.

“It’s a picture of America,” Bob Hollister says.

But the Eastern Lancaster County School District superintendent isn’t referring to the idyllic scenery outside New Holland Elementary.

Hollister is talking about the student body inside the school, which has almost 25 percent minority students.

And he’s right. The picture of American public schools has become increasingly diverse.

This fall, for the first time, minority students surpassed 50 percent of the public school population nationwide, according to estimates by National Center for Education Statistics.

Locally, School District of Lancaster has long had a majority-minority enrollment, reaching 86 percent minority students last year, according to state Department of Education data.

The rest of Lancaster County public schools are predominantly white, but in the past decade, they’ve seen increasing racial and ethnic diversity, too.

Between 2003 and 2013, minority student enrollment in the county’s 15 suburban and rural districts increased from 8.6 percent to 18.4 percent.

(Octorara School District, which is mostly in Chester County, is not included in those figures.)

School officials and education advocates say the changing demographics of Lancaster County schools bring both challenges and assets. LNP will explore some of those topics in an occasional series of articles throughout the 2014-15 school year.

Language barrier

After moving from the Dominican Republic, Lewis Lenibel Diaz-DeLeon started Hempfield School District in third grade. Now a sophomore, Lewis says it wasn’t easy.

“The teacher had to have a dictionary the whole time to translate words. And back then there weren’t many people like now who speak Spanish or speak both languages.”

Lewis says she sees more Spanish-speaking classmates and teachers in high school, and she loves taking a Spanish for native speakers course.

Throughout Lancaster County, Hispanic students are the largest minority group. As a result, some districts, like Hempfield, are hiring more employees who know Spanish.

But being bilingual isn’t always enough, says Shaunte DePaso, who oversees student enrollment there. More than 20 native languages are represented by Hempfield students.

“On a daily basis there are families coming in, and many of them are Latinos, but many of them are coming from other (places) like Africa or India,” she explains.

Role models needed

Language may not be the only disconnect between minority students and school personnel.

In the 2011-12 school year, 82 percent of public school teachers in the U.S. were white, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s not much different from eight years earlier, when the number was 83 percent.

Differences in experiences between students and teachers calls for some re-tooling, says Patricia Gándara, education researcher and co-director of The Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

“Many teachers have a mantra, ‘I don’t see color, I just see kids,’ but … It’s just not true. We all come to our situations with certain assumptions, and we all have to work to overcome those,” she says.

“This is something that teachers are going to need to learn as their classrooms change.”

New Holland Elementary teacher Laura Mitchley, who is white, says she’s gone through that adjustment during her 10 years at the school.

“I have learned to be more accepting. … When homework’s not getting done, instead of going straight to, ‘Well you’re staying in for recess,’ I go to, ‘Why isn’t it getting done?’ Sometimes it’s, ‘Mom couldn’t read it. Mom couldn’t help me,’ ” she says.

Education advocates also want to see stronger recruitment of teachers from minority groups.

“We need to know that there are Latino educators who will serve as role models,” says Fran Rodriguez, co-chair of the Lancaster Adelante Education Committee, a group focused on race and equity in schools.

“Kids that don’t see people like them in positions of power, they’re going to think that racism is alive and well.”

Assets

On a Wednesday afternoon at New Holland Elementary, Laura Mitchley addressed a carpet full of second-graders.

“Who’s going to try really, really hard to be a positive person?” she asked.

Hands shot into the air.

The class is a mix of white, Hispanic, and multiracial children. There is also a student from Russia.

Together, they’re working on being “the best classroom in the history of classrooms in the whole entire world” - a phrase they chanted in unison as soon as the first syllable escaped their teacher’s lips.

Mitchley adopted the rallying cry this year to help students build community across individual differences. That’s an important skill as diversity increases, she said.

“Teaching our kids early on that we need to be accepting of everybody will really impact the way we treat each other when we’re older.”

Local school leaders also say that attending diverse schools will prepare young people for careers that demand teamwork and intercultural competence.

It’s up to educators to instill those lessons, and to recognize the individual strengths of minority students, says Norman Bristol Colón, another leader in the Lancaster Adelante Education Committee.

“The biggest battle will be for (suburban and rural) teachers to stand up and embrace diversity as an asset,” he says.

“A student with the last name Lopez, Rivera or Rodriguez is as American as apple pie.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1sWWC8N

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Information from: LNP, https://lancasteronline.com

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