Local: Education

Hispanic population growth fuels enrollment boom

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Local,Maryland,Virginia,Education,Lisa Gartner

By most counts, Bailey's is the largest public elementary school in Virginia.

The Falls Church campus has 1,218 students, making it the most crowded elementary in Fairfax County Public Schools, and far too crowded to mince words: "There's been a big population boom in our area, and it's coming from the immigrant population," says PTA President Christine Adams.

"We see the mothers as they walk to school with their child, who has an older sibling in the school, and the mother has an infant or sometimes she's pregnant. We literally see the next kindergarten class coming in. We don't see any reason for this boom to slow down."

Enrollment in the Washington-area's premier school systems continued its rapid rise this school year, with school officials naming the booming Hispanic community as a key cause of the growth in the young grades.

Who goes to school
Ethnicity and race membership in the Fairfax and Montgomery county school systems:
Fairfax County Public Schools
  1991-1992 2001-2002 2006-2007 2011-2012
Asian 12.1% 16.0% 17.8% 19.3%
Black 10.1% 10.5% 10.7% 10.4%  
Hispanic/Latino 7.0% 14% 16.4% 22.1%
Multiracial -- 3.1% 5.3% 4.6%
White 70.4% 55.8% 49.1% 43.1%
Montgomery County Public Schools
  2002-2003 2007-2008 2011-2012
Asian 14.2% 15.2% 14.3%
Black 21.4% 22.9% 21.2%
Hispanic/Latino 17.9% 21.5% 26.0%
Multiracial - - 4.4%
White 46.1% 40.1% 33.7%
Student surge
Enrollments over the last several years:
  2009-2010 2010-2011 2011-2012
Fairfax 171,962 174,470 177,718
Montgomery 141,777 144,064 146,497

The influx is transforming the faces of the area's largest, most successful school systems, and changing the way teachers and administrators approach students. It's also putting a demand on the county for more funding -- not just because there are more kids, but because there are more kids with challenges.

Montgomery County Public Schools' enrollment increased by almost 2,500 this year, landing at 146,497 students, while a surge of 3,200 additional students put Fairfax County Public Schools' enrollment at 177,718.

Smaller school systems like Arlington County's and Alexandria City's also saw enrollment surge.

As older, white families have retired and moved, they have been replaced by younger Hispanic families with three times the birthrate as white families, said Larry Bizette, demographer for Fairfax schools. "Largely speaking, it's a cultural thing," Bizette said.

While Fairfax has grown by 45,000 students in the past 20 years, the number of white students has dropped by 17,000. The population of Hispanic students more than quadrupled.

Hispanic students are the dominant racial group at more than one-third of Montgomery County's 132 public elementary schools, mostly in Silver Spring, Wheaton and Gaithersburg. This school year, they made up 28 percent of the elementary population, just behind white students at 32 percent, the slimmest gap in the district's history.

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It's an urgent issue in both jurisdictions as more Hispanic children fill classrooms than walk across platforms on graduation day. About 74 percent of Hispanic students graduate on time in Montgomery County, a 20 percentage point spread below white and Asian students. For those who can't speak fluent English, the on-time completion rate drops to 37 percent.

Antonio Hernandez Cardoso, a Silver Spring father of four, said he believes the school system is doing a good job reaching Hispanic parents. "The children are intelligent, but they don't have the papers, or don't see it worth it to study beyond high school because their parents don't have enough money," said Cardoso, adding that many Hispanic parents find the schools frustrating. Often both parents work, or do not understand how to use technology to check their children's grades and attendance, he said.

Erick Lang, Montgomery's associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional programs, said professional development has focused on things as simple as which raised hand to pick. "It's not always the kid who's 'Oh, oh, call on me,' but really engaging all students," Lang said.

Fairfax County pays bilingual residents $20.50 per hour for part-time jobs as "parent liaisons" to Hispanic and other immigrant families, and trains teachers to engage students who aren't completely comfortable with English.

"Like using more visuals with your teaching, which is good overall -- the more senses you use, the better the instruction," said Robin Hamby, a family partnerships specialist.

Teachers are encouraged to break kids into small groups for presentations, reducing the stress of public speaking.

Bailey's Elementary is 57 percent Hispanic, and, last year, nearly 60 percent of students could not speak English fluently -- a figure that jumped 15 percentage points in two years alone.

Adams said the school suffered a reputation for uninvolved parents and kids who couldn't keep up. White families shifted to private schools.

But the county was forced to find "a brilliant solution," when officials turned Bailey's into a Spanish-immersion magnet school.

"My kid could learn Spanish by the time they get out of elementary school," Adams said. "How cool is that?"

lgartner@washingtonexaminer.com

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