Montgomery County’s kindergarten class is made up of more Hispanic students than children of any other racial or ethnic group for the third year in a row, a trend that school planners say is likely to continue in Maryland’s fastest-growing school district.
Hispanic children account for 32 percent of all kindergartners, according to September enrollment figures. By comparison, 29 percent of kindergartners are white, 20 percent are African American and 13 percent are Asian.
Montgomery’s first- and second-grade classes break down similarly.
“People have been saying Montgomery County is changing, Montgomery County is changing, and the fact is, we’ve changed,” Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said in an interview Friday. “This trend has been going on [for] a while, and now we see it at the elementary level . . . and we expect it to continue.”
The shift in the early grades comes amid surging enrollment in Montgomery, Maryland’s largest school district, and partly reflects national trends, as Hispanic children represent a growing share of public school students across the country.
The numbers also add to questions about how well the school system is responding to its increasingly diverse community and whether more needs to be done. This week, county officials issued a report showing most educators in Montgomery’s schools are white — nearly 76 percent — and that no one tracks whether they speak Spanish or other languages.
Starr said the district is committed to diversifying Montgomery’s workforce, and he has asked his staff to put together a “bold and aggressive” plan. He also said school leaders have increased community engagement work, stepped up cultural competency efforts and invested more heavily in programs for students learning English.
“We have been doing several things, and we have to double-down on our efforts,” he said.
Montgomery’s school population has been in transition for years. Across all grades taken together, white students remain the largest group — 31 percent — but that number has fallen sharply since 1970, when more than 90 percent of students were white.
Now, from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade, nearly 44,000 county students are Hispanic, including more than 11,000 children in grades K to 2.
“It’s an indication that the system is becoming more and more Hispanic as time goes on,” said Bruce Crispell, director of the division of long-range planning for Montgomery schools.
Such shifts reflect the rapid growth of the Hispanic population across the Washington-
metropolitan region in the past few decades, said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic research at the Pew Research Center.
The growth underscores a need to focus efforts on helping Hispanic students succeed and families become engaged in their schools, said Maritza Solano, community schools manager at Casa de Maryland.
“It is telling us that we need to strengthen the systems and maybe create additional systems that respond to the needs of the community,” she said. “We’re seeing such an influx, and we need to respond to that not only with programs but with who we are putting on the ground” to work as staff in schools, she said.
School officials did not have numbers yet for this year for students involved in programs that help children learn English. Last year, 13.5 percent of students districtwide — 20,480 children — were in such programs; most were children in elementary school, and 70 percent were born in the United States.
The changes in Montgomery also have been economic. Last year, more than 34 percent of Montgomery students received free or reduced-price school meals, a number that has been on the rise and is used as a federal measure of poverty.
County planners had forecast a big jump in enrollment for this school year — more than 2,800 students — and the new figures show a record 154,230 students, bearing out projections. The numbers are considered preliminary and may shift slightly as they are made final in coming weeks.
Enrollment in Montgomery’s schools has climbed since 2007, an increase planners link to trends in birth rates, family migration and more populated grades of younger students aging up through the school system.
The recession that began in late 2007 has been a compounding factor, said Crispell, the director of long-range planning. Since 2007, more students have moved from private schools to public schools than in the past.
Montgomery County Council member Nancy Navarro (D-Mid-County), a former school board member, said increasing Hispanic enrollment points to a need to take a close look at early education efforts, English-learner programs and the “scaling up” of best practices in schools. The student achievement gap remains a big concern, she said.
“For me, this just accentuates the need to be very strategic, very intentional, and address these issues head on,” she said.