Montgomery County’s public schools have become increasingly diverse over the years and recently reached a new milestone: Hispanic students are the largest racial or ethnic group. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Hispanic students for the first time outnumber their peers in other racial and ethnic groups in Montgomery County’s public schools, a milestone for diversity in a suburb long regarded as largely white and affluent.

The school district in 2016-2017 is 30 percent Hispanic, 29 percent white, 22 percent black and 14 percent Asian, according to school district data, a student body that would have been difficult to imagine five decades ago, when Montgomery’s enrollment was 94 percent white.

“I think it adds to the richness of the community,” said Jill ­Ortman-Fouse, a school board member from Silver Spring, who recalled a recent string of tweets about schools hosting events for Hispanic Heritage Month. “It’s not classic suburbia anymore.”

Long in the making, the demographic shift in the Maryland suburb reflects broader changes­­ nationally and brings new attention to whether the high-
performing school system is doing enough for its surging number of Hispanic students. Some in Montgomery see promise in a newly appointed superintendent and more county funding this year, but there are also concerns about wide gaps in achievement, lagging graduation rates and language barriers.

“The question is, ‘What are we doing to better serve the population?’ Because it isn’t the same as it was 30 years ago,” said parent Karla Silvestre, co-chair of the district’s Latino Student Achievement Action Group. She said it is increasingly important for the school system to engage Hispanic families in their schools and to have bilingual staffers to help with parent-teacher interactions.

The tipping point comes in a school district that is Maryland’s largest and among its fastest-growing. More than 159,200 students attend classes in Montgomery, up by almost 2,800 this year and more than 21,000 since 2007, according to preliminary district data that the county plans to finalize late this month.

The growth in enrollment has meant more English learners in class and more students from low-income families. Nearly 55,000 students receive free or reduced-price meals, a number exceeding the total enrollment of the neighboring D.C. school system.

“I think the trend is very important, and that wave of change is going to continue,” said school board member Patricia O’Neill, noting that the change might be taking some residents by surprise. “Some people live in the Bethesda bubble. They live in their own little comfort zone and don’t see it.”

Historical data shows that Montgomery’s white enrollment as a percentage of the entire student body — at more than 90 percent in 1971 — has dipped every year since, while the percentage of Hispanic students has been climbing since 1984. In 2000, Montgomery became ­majority-minority, with white enrollment below 50 percent for the first time.

Hispanic students are the ­fastest-growing population nationally in public schools, said Pedro Noguera, an education professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Sciences. “This is happening across the country. Rural, urban, suburban,” he said.

The change often comes with growing pains, said Roberto Gonzales, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. “Some districts have done better than others,” he said. School districts that embrace diversity and see it as an asset, he said, typically fare better than those that act threatened or fearful.

For some parents, he said, the key question seems to be: Do schools remain good as they become more diverse? Gonzales says that they do.

“Growing up with somebody who is different from you helps students to develop empathy, broaden their world view,” he said. “It allows them to be part of this global society.”

An increased share of disadvantaged students could affect overall district test scores, but with a gradual demographic shift, changes might be small or imperceptible from year to year and don’t necessarily indicate changes in school quality, said Michael Hansen, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.

School district planners pointed to the leading edge of the trend in 2013, when Hispanic kindergartners and first-graders outnumbered their peers in other racial and ethnic groups. A year later, the trend extended to second grade and then up to fourth grade.

In late September, the district counted nearly 48,000 Hispanic students, 1,360 students more than its second-largest group, white students.

“It’s definitely a shift that is noteworthy,” said Montgomery Schools Superintendent Jack Smith, who has promised to use performance data to improve student outcomes and called narrowing the gap in student achievement a moral imperative. “It’s important for us to know who we serve, and we also have to serve all students well.”

Smith, who began his tenure in July, said cultural proficiency among staff is a priority, as are best instructional practices and building relationships with students. He said he’s interested in dual-language programs and expanding the number of multi­lingual staff.

On recent state tests, achievement gaps were stark. In Algebra 1, 69 percent of white students and 72 percent of Asian students passed the state exam in the spring, compared with 19 percent of Hispanic students and 25 percent of black students.

Some Latino community leaders say they hope Smith’s efforts — along with a budget that goes nearly $90 million above the minimum state funding level — will mean better results.

“This gap cannot continue,” said Diego Uriburu, executive director of Identity Inc., which works with Hispanic youth and families in Montgomery. “The time to really fully address it is now.”

Uriburu said the district needs to improve the cultural competency and diversity of its staff, increase academic support for those who struggle, and expand career and technology education. He said that Hispanic students are eager to learn and that with adequate support, they will be successful.

“There is a sense of urgency that comes with this milestone,” he said.

Montgomery started a teacher diversity initiative in late 2014, but major changes in overall composition have not come quickly. The teacher workforce this year is nearly 75 percent white, 12 percent black, 6 percent Asian and 6 percent Hispanic, according to district data.

The enrollment changes­ highlight the need to keep class sizes small for English-language learners, said Judith Docca, the school board’s vice president. But Docca said she also would like the district to focus on all students who are significantly behind in math and English, including African American students. “We want to do this equitably,” she said.

As the county has grown more diverse, not all of its schools have changed in the same way. Some elementary schools were more than 70 percent Hispanic last year, for example; others were less than 10 percent.

Conor Williams, a senior researcher at New America, a D.C. think tank, called the increasing Hispanic enrollment “a wonderful opportunity” to expand dual-language immersion programs that use students’ home languages to help teach their peers. Such programs have been successful across the country, he said.

“They often can help privileged families be more enthusiastic about integrating their schools,” Williams said.

At Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, where Hispanic students represent nearly half of the enrollment, longtime Principal James Fernandez said one of the biggest issues for his students is attendance, with some missing class because they need to take jobs to help their families.

But across the school, 88 percent of Einstein graduates last year were headed to college, up from 41 percent in 2005, he said. A number of students drop out before they reach high school graduation, he said, but educators work to keep them enrolled; the school’s 2015 graduation rate was nearly 83 percent.

Fernandez said that while it might be a new experience for some schools to have a large number of Hispanic students, it is an everyday reality at Einstein.

“We are those kids, and we’ve been very successful,” he said.