Certain characteristics set the Laredo Independent School District apart from most districts in the state.
Its western boundary aligns directly with the Mexican border. Nearly all its students are poor, and nearly all are Hispanic. Most rely on the school to provide two meals a day. On the first day of school this week, some showed up without shoes or without parents accompanying them.
“It’s hard to work on teaching them about reading and writing and math when they haven’t eaten. It’s hard to really welcome them into their class with their textbooks and their lockers when they don’t have on shoes,” said Marcus Nelson, the Laredo superintendent, who said the district solicited donations of shoes and dress-code appropriate clothes all summer to prepare for the new school year.
But geography aside, Texas public schools may increasingly find more in common with the South Texas district. In 2011, the state reached two landmarks. For the first time, Hispanics became the majority of public school students. And to cope with a historic budget deficit, the Legislature did not finance enrollment growth in the state’s schools — something that had not happened since the modernization of the state’s public school system in 1949. Though the first turning point passed quietly and the second with much political strife, they both underscored the challenges ahead as a dramatic demographic shift occurs in public school classrooms statewide.
By 2050, the number of Texas public school students is expected to swell to nine million from roughly five million now, and nearly two-thirds will be Hispanic, according to Steve Murdock, a demographer and director of Rice University’s Hobby Center for the Study of Texas. The overall percentage of white students will drop by half to about 15 percent. Without a change in Hispanics’ current socioeconomic status, that also means Texas students will continue to grow poorer — and their education more expensive — in the next four decades, Murdock added.
State population figures over the last decade show the shift is well under way in the public school system. Economically disadvantaged children in Texas classrooms make up 60 percent of all children in public schools, up from less than half in 2000. Students with limited English skills now make up 16 percent of them. Of about 979,000 children added to the state’s under-18 population from 2000 to 2010, 931,000 were Hispanic.
“When you look at children, there is no doubt. The future of Texas — the future of the United States — is tied to the minority population,” said Murdock, a former state demographer and director of the United States Census Bureau. “It’s just mathematically true.”
If current trends hold, such projections make for a bleak forecast. According to state data, Hispanic students are statistically less likely to leave high school with a diploma than their white peers. Of the Hispanic students who do graduate, few are prepared for college. In 2010, 42 percent met college-readiness benchmarks in both English and math, compared with 66 percent of white students. Among economically disadvantaged and students with limited English proficiency, the gap continues to widen. Thirty-eight percent of students who came from low-income households did well enough on their Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills or college entrance exams to qualify as “college ready.” Only 5 percent of those with limited English language skills did so.
The Laredo district, along with a handful of others including Pharr-San Juan-Alamo District near McAllen, has had a head start in educating the kinds of students who will make up more of the state’s public schools. It has had successes — graduation rates for both districts have consistently surpassed the state average for Hispanics — but has also had to learn to embrace the additional challenges that come with serving students from at-risk backgrounds.
The methods that Nelson said Laredo uses to reach its students range from the simple, like having days where students wear their favorite college shirts to class, to the more complicated task of familiarizing teachers with the problems their students confront outside the classroom. That can mean starting out with the basics — defining words like “assessment” and “equation” — so that students know how they are being evaluated.
The district has also created a partnership with a community college to create an early college high school in which students can take courses that allow them to graduate with college credits in hand. All of the efforts revolve around the goal of changing the expectations that students had for themselves, Nelson said.
Much of that, he said, is emphasizing that “what you were born into does not have to be your lot in life, you are just going to have to dig down and really buy into our system of teaching and learning in the 21st century.”
“We’ve got kids that are poor, and we’ve got kids that are Hispanic, but we’ve also got kids that are some of the best and brightest kids in the state,” Nelson said.
That is a shift in perspective that needs to happen in the way policy makers at the state and district level think about educating Hispanic and low-income students, said Patricia Lopez, an associate researcher at the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Center for Education Policy.
Too often, Lopez said, students are looked at as the problem, rather than the institutions that serve them. “We don’t sit back and ask is the challenge really about the capacities of the schools and the people within those schools not being up to par,” she said. “We have not invested in that, so that those kids aren’t coming into a context where failure is seen as a function of them.”
The 2011 budget cuts, when lawmakers reduced public education financing by more than $5 billion, have exacerbated that, Lopez said. But the issue also needs to be addressed in teacher and principal recruitment programs, which she said could help make school leaders aware of their own biases in the classroom and better understand the world their students inhabit.
“It’s more common to hear things like kids take poverty into schools, kids take broken home into schools, but people who are educators also take their baggage into schools,” she said.
If Texas can adequately educate the new student majority, Murdock said, the potential reward is large. As a state with a population that is growing younger instead of older its work force would be competitively poised to replace a generation of retiring baby boomers, he said, taking advantage of the accompanying economic opportunity and higher incomes.
There has been some improvement. Over the last decade, the gap between the academic achievement of white and Hispanic students in the state has narrowed. But if the current rate of closure remains, it still would not be enough to ensure the state’s success, Murdock said.
“It says I need to run fairly quickly from here to the finish line or maybe I wont get to the finish line,” he said.
Other stories in our Beyond the Data series have looked at how many Texas students are dropping out of high school, whether they are prepared for college, how much schools spend per student and trends in school district staffing.
*A previous version of this article stated incorrectly the institution with which the Laredo Independent School District has a partnership to create an early college high school. It is Texas A&M International University, not a local community college.