With Illinois public schools on the cusp of becoming "majority minority," suburban districts that were once overwhelmingly white are adjusting to their rising Latino enrollment with changes in curriculum and culture.
The newly released 2013 Illinois School Report Card shows total minority enrollment at 49.4 percent, less than a percentage point from a majority, with Latinos leading the increase. In the last 15 years, the state's Hispanic share of public school students has increased by 10 percentage points, to 24.1 percent, a gain attributed to high birth rates and immigration.
At Beach Park School District 3 in Lake County, administrators have been hiring more bilingual educators as the Hispanic share of enrollment has nearly doubled since 2004, to 38.2 percent. White enrollment has been cut nearly in half, to 28.9 percent.
The five-school district now sends report cards and newsletters home in Spanish and English. And it works with the local community college to enroll Spanish-speaking parents in GED classes. Teachers last year also initiated a Latino family literacy project to show parents how to read to their children.
"They're more comfortable coming into the school and talking to people, whereas generally they stay away because it's a cultural thing," Superintendent Robert DiVirgilio said. "Now that we've got them thinking, 'This is important,' they come in, and they talk to us."
Across the Chicago area, more schools are hiring bilingual staff, hosting cultural events to celebrate diversity and holding programs in foreign languages to get parents involved. But many schools haven't adjusted to the demographics, experts say, and are struggling to understand and meet the needs of a changing population, especially those trying to learn English.
"There's a need for school districts to respond to their growing demographic," said Sylvia Puente, executive director of the Chicago-based Latino Policy Forum. "We want quality education for all our students. It's incumbent on school districts to understand who their student population is."
Chicago has long been a point of entry for immigrants, but many have moved past the city's borders, creating communities in Cook County's suburbs and in the collar counties, experts said. Now, many newcomers go straight to those communities when they arrive.
Having more minorities in schools exposes children to a variety of ethnicities, but that doesn't necessarily mean racial tensions have diminished in Illinois, experts say.
Children typically embrace diversity if their school and its leaders value and highlight the contributions that different kids bring to the table, said Simeon Stumme, associate professor at the Center for Policy Studies and Social Justice at Concordia University Chicago in River Forest.
"The school can't be hands off and think that kids will become tolerant and inclusive," said Stumme, who is also the president of the Illinois Association for Multilingual Multicultural Education. "There has to be an active process by the school. It needs to be … one of their priorities."
Illinois School Report Card data show that the growth in the percentage of Latino public school students in the last 15 years has coincided with a decrease in whites to 50.6 percent, from 62 percent; a drop in blacks to 17.6 percent from 20.8 percent; and an increase in Asians to 4.4 percent, from 3.2 percent.
Minorities overall still lag behind their white counterparts in state standardized tests, but many experts said those exams don't fairly evaluate knowledge because many minority students don't know or haven't mastered the English language.
"They become more of a language test rather than an academic achievement test," said Josie Yanguas, director at the Illinois Resource Center, an organization that provides professional development to teachers to work with diverse students.
The influx of minorities has led some schools to create programs tailored to those families.
For example, Glenbard Township High School District 87, where Hispanic enrollment has increased at the four high schools, offers Saturday programs in Spanish for parents to help them prepare their children for college. At least 100 people attend each of the 11 programs held during the year.
Soon after a reading specialist retired last year from Independence Elementary in Bolingbrook, Principal Kim Mulcahy filled the position with a teacher who speaks fluent Spanish.
Ten years ago, the school had mostly white and black children, but its Hispanic population has doubled since then. Now, messages go home in two languages, and two of the three secretaries in the front office are bilingual.
"That makes our school approachable for a lot of parents," said Mulcahy, who also speaks Spanish.
In addition to addressing language issues, experts say schools should have teaching materials like books and posters that reflect the diversity in the student population.
Hiring teachers who understand other cultures, can relate to the difficulties of learning a second language and look like their students is also important.
"It's not just about (having) language instruction in Urdu," said Kathleen Jung Hee Fernicola, director of policy and programs for Asian Americans Advancing Justice Chicago. "It's about having a counselor who's from the Asian community counseling a whole bunch of kids … and seen as a leader."
Administrators at Vernon Hills-based Hawthorn School District 73 agree. Sixty-six languages are spoken in the north suburban district, which has seen a jump in Asian and Hispanic enrollment.
Students have the opportunity to learn about diversity through the library books representing different races and at international nights when families bring artifacts from their countries. Children also learn lessons in empathy and understanding because culture goes deeper than food and fashion.
"We see the diversity as a strength and not as problem that we need to overcome," said Betsy Sostak, the district's coordinator of bilingual and dual language.
On a recent afternoon, several parents waited to pick up their kids outside Sahs School in Chicago, which has seen its Hispanic share of the enrollment more than triple — to 68.5 percent from 19.7 percent in 2004 — while whites dropped to 23.6 percent from 80.3 percent.
Despite the dramatic change, many said it wasn't that big of a deal. Ariel Pabon, 12, said social and money distinctions matter much more.
"People definitely pay attention to what you wear," the seventh-grade student said.
Genie Rivera saw the school's increasing diversity as a positive change, pointing to the Spanish and English preschool, kindergarten and first-grade classes. Rivera signed her daughter up for Spanish kindergarten because she thought being bilingual would be an advantage later on.
As students left school at the end of the day, many clutched pumpkins and discussed Halloween plans. Some spoke English, some Spanish, but few seemed to pay much attention to ethnicity.
"To them, it just seems normal," Rivera said.
Julie Moreno, vice president of the PTA, said that, as the neighborhood has been transformed, she's noticed changes at the school. It's become a struggle to get more than a handful of parents at PTA meetings, she said.
"There are more kids from single-family homes, and parents don't have time to be involved," said Moreno, who has three children at Sahs.
It seems that the language barrier has prevented many Hispanic parents from signing up for the PTA at Hubble Middle School in Warrenville. It is trying to increase membership among Latino families this year, said Carla Parch, the group's president.
The group sends home letters in Spanish that explain what the PTA is, where the money it raises goes and how parents can become involved.
"I think that they just don't really know about it," Parch said. "I think our communication has been lacking until this point, and it's something that we're trying desperately to fix."
She welcomes the diversity, which has introduced her two children to food from other cultures and taught them about new holidays like the Mexican Day of the Dead. Recently, her 14-year-old daughter was invited to a "quinceanera," a 15th birthday party celebrated by Latino families.
"It just brings something new to them," Parch said of the changing demographics. "A person of a different color or a different culture is not an unknown now, which is kind of nice."
Tribune reporters Diane Rado and Alex Richards contributed.
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