April 6, 2011 | Original Article

Minorities soon to be majority among children

A majority of the nation’s children will be minorities before the decade is out, crossing a demographic milestone more quickly than previously predicted, according to a new analysis of census statistics by a demographer with the Brookings Institution.

Demographer William H. Frey said unexpectedly rapid growth among Hispanics and Asians is creating a demographic age gap that already is visible in classrooms and playgrounds. The Census Bureau has estimated that most children will be minorities by 2023, but Frey said that landmark will be reached years earlier.

Frey said it also is likely that the nation’s population overall will become predominantly minority before the census estimate of 2042.

What Frey calls the “new minorities” — primarily Hispanics and Asians — are responsible for all the growth among children between 2000 and 2010. During a decade when white children declined by 4.3 million and black children experienced a slight decline, Hispanic and Asian children increased by 5.5 million.

As evidence of the wide and growing age gap, the nation’s whites have a median age of 41. That compares to age 35 for Asians, 27 for Hispanics and 20 for people who identified themselves on the census as being of more than one race.

Describing the numbers as “demographically urgent,” Frey said the data underscores the need to do a better job educating minorities, who are going to be a significant part of the country’s labor force down the road.

“For the first time, people are opening their eyes to the situation,” said Frey. “We have to realize we have an aging white population. Our youth is the future of the country, and a diverse youth is the future of the country.”

The census statistics Frey analyzed were collected in the 2010 Census and released state-by-state in February and March. White children are now a minority among all children in 10 states and 35 metro areas, including Washington, Phoenix, New York and Atlanta.

Latinos already are the largest minority among schoolchildren nationwide. One in five students overall is Latino; among kindergarteners, it’s one in four. They lag behind other children in achievement, with half never finishing high school.

More needs to be done at an earlier age to help them bridge the gap, said Thelma Melndez de Santa Ana, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the Education Department.

“America’s future is tied to the success of Latino students,” she said.

In the Washington region, the growth of Hispanics has been most dramatic in suburban school districts. In the five years between the 2005 and 2010 school years, Hispanics students enrolled in Fairfax County schools rose 44 percent and Asian students went up 18 percent, while there were 7 percent fewer white students.

The Hispanic student body in Prince George’s County schools grew by 50 percent between 2005 and 2010, while blacks declined by 13 percent and whites went down 39 percent.

And in Montgomery County, Hispanic students rose by 19 percent, almost double the rate of Asian students amid a white student decline of 10 percent.

Jerry Weast, Montgomery County’s school superintendant, said such rapid changes can pose challenges for school districts.

“If they’re not prepared to deal with these issues, they’ll have issues of quality such as increased dropout rates,” he said. “It will have a detrimental effect on their scores on state and national tests, and can create tension.”

During Weast’s 10 years as superintendant, the district has gone from 50 percent white to 35 percent white, with the largest growth among Latino and African American students. But test scores are higher than ever, he noted.

“I see the culture of diversity as an asset,” he said. “Don’t be afraid of it. Run towards it, embrace it. Not only does it work, it works positively.”