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Minorities reach majority in state schools

For the first time, ethnic minorities outnumber whites in public schools. Hispanics showed the most growth.

Published February 27, 2004



TAMPA - At Pam Campbell's Chamberlain High School, homecoming court was an all-white affair. In the hallways, black students were few and far between. Textbooks ignored Hispanic culture.

That was 1970. Before Campbell married a Cuban man and became principal Peralta. Before Chamberlain held international nights and unity days. Before a dozen languages were spoken in the school cafeteria.

Today, Chamberlain High mirrors a societal transformation that has remade the face of Florida's classrooms. For the first time, ethnic minorities are the majority of public school students.

Florida crossed the threshold this fall without fanfare. An annual head count found the racial balance had tipped: 50.3 percent of the state's 2.6-million students are minorities.

"Schools are many societies," Peralta said. "We represent what the world looks like."

This school year, whites make up 49.75 percent of students, followed by blacks (23.88 percent), Hispanics (21.7 percent), multiracial (2.34 percent) and Asians (2.04 percent).

Florida joins Hawaii, New Mexico, California, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and the District of Columbia as places that report having majority-minority populations in their public schools.

In Florida, Hispanics have seen the greatest gains, adding nearly a half-million students to public school classrooms since 1977. Demographers credit much of the overall swing to an influx of young, immigrant families, as well as higher birthrates among Hispanic and black women.

"As those populations age, they will have a greater impact on the racial and ethnic imprint of the entire state," said Stan Smith, a demographer at the University of Florida. "The younger population in general, whether in public schools or not, is going to be the future of the state."

An increase in private school enrollment also has contributed to the shift, since a disproportionate percentage of Florida's white students attend private schools.

In 2000, almost one in six white students in Florida was enrolled in a private school. That compared with one in 11 Hispanic students and fewer than one in 20 black students, according to the U.S. Census.

The phenomenon, sometimes called "white flight," has occurred in other states where minorities are now a majority.

"We have this crisis of conscience as demographics change," said Gregory Rodriguez, who studies population change as a senior fellow at the New American Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank. "We talk and talk and talk about it. And the question is, does it really matter?"

At Chamberlain High School, diversity has forced students to find answers.

"Everybody is different, but the same," said freshman Matt Levin, who is white. "They still have to eat. They still have to sleep somewhere."

In band class, Levin sits with E.J. Evans, a black freshman who was apprehensive about white students when he arrived at Chamberlain.

"When you get to know them, some of them are nice," Evans said.

Even at Chamberlain, adjustments take time. When Spanish instructor Olga-Villada Barnes started teaching here in 1969, only a handful of black and Hispanic students attended the north Tampa school.

Desegregation brought sweeping changes.

"The black students had just been in totally black schools, and each culture was sort of like misunderstood," she said. But students quickly learned from each other - first in school, then in each other's homes.

"Through the years at Chamberlain, I've seen a wonderful acceptance of diversity," said Barnes, who retired last spring after 40 years of teaching. "It's not so much about the color of your skin anymore, but about the person that you are."

Still, she wonders whether Hillsborough schools will retain diverse populations when busing for desegregation ends next year. Pinellas County schools began the transition away from court-ordered integration last year.

Demographic change also raises the stakes for public schools struggling to close the decades-old achievement gap between white and minority students. In every Florida school district, minority students score significantly lower than whites on tests measuring reading and math.

Florida Education Commissioner Jim Horne said he embraces this year's milestone. But he is not ready to celebrate.

"The changing landscape and look of Florida really is not so important as that all children are learning," Horne said. "The emphasis is on all."

This fall, the federal government demanded that Florida schools do better. Most Florida schools failed the No Child Left Behind report card, which checked to see that all children were learning, regardless of race, family income and ability.

The search for solutions promises to be complex. Florida's minority student population includes a melting pot of cultures.

Among minority groups is a small but growing Asian population, whose students are almost as likely as whites to attend private schools. And the children of Mexican immigrants, Cuban-Americans and Puerto Ricans know different experiences.

Geography remains a dividing factor. South Florida and urban areas have absorbed the most significant demographic changes. In west-central Florida, for example, only Hillsborough County's public schools have reached the majority-minority milestone.

Schools in Hernando, Citrus and Pasco counties remain more than 80 percent white. Even at Chamberlain High, the demographic milestone has gone unnoticed. After 30 years of gradual change, diversity is the reality.

[Last modified February 27, 2004, 01:31:31]

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