Hispanic students now make up the largest racial or ethnic group in most of Montgomery County’s elementary school grades, according to new data that shows the fast-growing suburban school system is increasingly diverse.
The numbers released this week confirm what school planners predicted two years ago, when Hispanic children — for the first time — represented the largest group in the county’s kindergarten and first-grade classes. Though non-Hispanic white students historically have been the largest group in the county’s schools, the trend of Hispanic growth has continued: New enrollment figures show that Hispanic students are the largest segment of those in kindergarten and grades 1 through 4.
Hispanic students account for 30 to 32 percent of each of those grades across the county, with non-Hispanic white students the second-largest group, representing 28 to 30 percent of enrollment. Black students account for 21 percent and Asian students 13 to 15 percent.
“It’s the changing face of Montgomery, and we have to adapt,” said the school board’s president, Patricia O’Neill, noting that she expects the growth of Hispanic enrollment to continue into upper grades in coming years. “I think they will be the single largest student group in Montgomery County Public Schools in all grades.”
The demographic changes in Maryland’s largest school district, with more than 156,000 students, reflect broader patterns of growing Latino enrollment nationwide. Hispanic students are the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group at U.S. public schools, said Conor Williams, an education researcher at New America, a Washington think tank.
“What you’re seeing in Montgomery County is absolutely indicative of what you’re seeing in other districts around the country,” he said. “These students come from unique cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and as a result, schools need to change in order to best support them.”
Community advocates said the shifting demographics mean the school system also needs to shift to address the needs of students who sometimes speak English as a second language and face the challenges of living in poverty.
Diego Uriburu, a longtime Latino community leader and co-chair of the Montgomery County Latino Advocacy Coalition, said the school district needs to go beyond adding a new program or service and instead come up with a comprehensive strategy geared to the academic and social-emotional needs of Latino students. In recent months, the district has taken steps to increase involvement of Latino community leaders in decision-making, he said.
“They are wonderful efforts but not enough,” Uriburu said. “The status quo is not at all okay. We need to have a shared vision and a plan, and we need to have the funds to execute it.”
He said he sees the new data “as another wake-up call for us to begin to do things differently.”
One thing that many in the county want to address is the achievement gap. The four-year graduation rate for Latino students in Montgomery was 80 percent in 2014, according to state data. Montgomery’s rate for African American students was 86 percent, and for non-Hispanic white and Asian students, it was 95 percent or higher.
The district’s math and reading “milestone” data for grades 3, 5 and 8 — presented to the school board over the summer — showed that a lower percentage of Hispanic students met each benchmark than did their non-Hispanic white, black or Asian classmates.
The district’s officials said Montgomery has many programs that address the needs of Hispanic students, noting that their graduation rate has ticked up. Montgomery’s Hispanic students do better on SAT exams and Advanced Placement participation than their Hispanic peers at the state and national levels, said Dana Tofig, a spokesman for the school system.
“We’ve made progress in some areas, and there are other areas where we’ve not made as much,” he said. One area of concern is early-grade reading, and Tofig said schools are making efforts to address that.
Poverty also is a central issue: About 53 percent of Hispanic students receive free or reduced-price meals — an indicator of poverty — compared with 33 percent of black students, 8 percent of Asian students and 4 percent of non-Hispanic white students. In all, 54,000 county students participate.
The changes in the Hispanic student population come as Montgomery’s enrollment continues to surge — increasing by more than 18,700 since 2008 and projected to grow by 10,000 more students in six years. “It’s an amazing amount of growth to absorb,” said Bruce Crispell, the school system’s director of long-range planning.
Montgomery County Council member Nancy Navarro (D-Mid-County) said the growing number of Hispanic students “calls for a rethinking of how we are allocating our resources.” One idea that bears examination, she said, is creating more dual-language programs.
Another priority is diversity in staff, Navarro said.
Last school year, about 6 percent of Montgomery’s teachers and 4 percent of principals were Hispanic. Officials say they are making concerted efforts, through a staff diversity initiative, and have improved their numbers for this school year: eight percent of newly hired teachers are Hispanic.
“These kids need to see people who look like them,” said Zorayda Moreira-Smith, senior director of schools and community development at CASA, the immigrant rights advocacy group formerly known as Casa de Maryland.
“It creates hope to see someone who looks like you.”