With each passing year, minorities have become the majority group in more suburban school districts.
School systems based in Palatine, Gurnee, Vernon Hills and Carol Stream now are teaching more Hispanic, Asian, black and other minority students than white students.
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Educators and administrators such as Mary Zarr in Palatine Elementary District 15 see these changes every day as they work to adjust staffing to mirror the student body, increase bilingual offerings, translate information for parents and close test score gaps between minority and white students.
Zarr, assistant superintendent for curriculum, special services and school improvement, said some people in the seven communities served by the Palatine-based district may not know these changes are occurring.
"I don't think people have fully grasped the fast-changing demographics of the school district," she said.
For the past three years, white students have made up less half the student population in Palatine District 15, but whites are still the majority in all seven towns from which it draws students.
Other suburban school districts are taking on "minority majority" status each year. But the demographics of their communities, where diverse populations may be centered in certain sections of town, are not necessarily shifting to match.
"It's a challenge when your school demographics don't match your community demographics," Zarr said. "It takes a little bit longer for the community to fully understand and embrace all the changes that are going on and to understand the depth of the need."
The makeup of Palatine District 15 this year is 44 percent white, 34.6 percent Hispanic, 14.9 percent Asian, 3.5 percent black and 3 percent multiracial or Native American, according to school report card data the state releases each fall. But the towns the district serves -- Palatine, Rolling Meadows, Hoffman Estates, Inverness, South Barrington, Arlington Heights and Schaumburg -- have white populations between 64.1 and 86.7 percent, according to 2010 census figures.
Elementary school districts including Carol Stream District 93, Vernon Hills-based Hawthorn District 73 and Gurnee-based Woodland District 50 have seen minority students increase to more than 50 percent of their population during the past four years.
In the Hawthorn and Woodland districts, the change happened just this year, although administrators say demographics have been shifting for about the past decade.
"I don't know if the (Gurnee-area) community itself has changed, but the population of the students themselves have changed," said Steve Thomas, director of teaching and learning in District 50.
Woodland has 49.3 percent white students -- down from 56 percent in 2010, according to school report card figures. Students feed into the district from Gages Lake, Grayslake, Gurnee, Lake Villa, Libertyville, Old Mill Creek, Park City, Third Lake, Wadsworth, Waukegan and Wildwood. Five of those communities have white populations ranging from 90.1 percent in Libertyville to 73.3 percent in Gurnee, while demographics of Park City and Waukegan -- both majority Hispanic towns with white populations of about 45 percent -- come closer to matching the district's diversity.
In Hawthorn District 73, administrators likewise recognize the communities that house their students may not be as diverse as the district population, which is 49.7 percent white, 26.9 percent Hispanic, 17.3 percent Asian and 5.8 percent multiracial or Native American students.
There, an entire elementary school has been dedicated to dual-language instruction, in which students learn content in English half the day and in Spanish the other half, for about a dozen years, said Lisa Cerauli, assistant superintendent for curriculum. But overall demographics among residents of all ages in Vernon Hills, Mundelein and Libertyville range from 90.1 to 71.4 percent white.
"It doesn't totally mirror all the neighborhoods in our district -- in fact, our neighborhoods aren't quite as diverse," Cerauli said.
District leaders said they take every opportunity they can to promote the value of a diverse student population to parents and community members who may be unaware of the growth in minority populations.
"We think it's better for kids to be in diverse settings," said Bill Shields, superintendent of Carol Stream District 93. "If we can celebrate and learn from each other, it'll make learning better."
But the different characteristics of minorities -- factors that often accompany their status as Hispanic, Asian, black, Native American or multiracial students -- bring challenges to educators as well. District 15's Zarr said minority students are more likely come to school with limited knowledge of English and more likely to be from low-income families.
"None of it is the ethnicity," Zarr said. "It depends if the minority population has other at-risk factors."
Administrators in districts seeing increasing diversity say they are changing several aspects of education to teach all students effectively, regardless of racial background.
Districts are recruiting minority candidates and teachers who speak a second language -- not just Spanish, but any language, District 73's Cerauli said. Administrators are planning expansions to bilingual and dual-language offerings that help students emerge from school with competency or fluency in more than one mode of communication. They also are looking for books in a variety of languages, and choosing classroom texts that come with translations for supporting materials.
But the best approach to more student diversity begins with casting aside minority classifications and analyzing the English skills, financial situation and test scores of students one at a time, District 93's Shields said.
"You still have to look at each individual child. You can't say 'it must be the ethnic group,' or we're not addressing their needs," said Shields, who leads a district with 47 percent white students, 19.6 percent Asians, 18.6 percent Hispanics, 6.4 percent blacks and 8.1 percent multiracial or Native American students. "Diversity itself should not be a hindrance on learning and if anyone thinks that, it's wrong."
District 93, where the minority population surpassed 50 percent last year, also has been encouraging teachers to get state endorsements for teaching English as a second language. Shields said 56 certified staff members among roughly 280 full-time equivalent teaching positions have received the endorsement.
In District 73, two elementary schools added bilingual Russian programming this year, and a bilingual Korean program may begin at one location next year, Cerauli said. Those programs are in addition to the district's established dual English and Spanish school for kindergartners through fifth-graders.
"Recently, we've solidified our bilingual philosophy that we believe in native language instruction first," Cerauli said. "We value students' home languages."
District 73's School of Dual Language is a good example of a way in which diversity benefits all students because being bilingual is a desirable career skill in almost any field, Cerauli said.
"It's certainly a great help for students trying to learn English, but it gives our students who are native English speakers that leg up, too," she said.
As minority populations grow in Woodland District 50, administrators are beginning to realize such benefits as well. Last year, the district started dual-language instruction in kindergarten with plans to expand the program by one grade level every year until it reaches fifth grade, said Thomas, the district's director of teaching and learning.
"We never could have done that before with a smaller Hispanic population," Thomas said about the dual-language program, which this year is teaching roughly 400 kindergarten and first-grade students.
In districts where students speak as many as 80 different languages at home, teachers plan cultural appreciation events and make everyone feel welcome, even in ways as simple as flying flags from children's countries of origin in school cafeterias, said Scott Thompson, superintendent of Palatine District 15.
"Almost every school does something that celebrates the cultures of the students and makes them feel important," he said.
Even if minority populations may increase faster in school districts than in suburban communities on the whole, bringing with them the potential for higher low-income or limited English-speaking populations, Thompson said he sees diversity as a strength.
"We look at these as pretty significant opportunities," he said, "for us to make a difference in these kids' lives so they can rise above the circumstances their parents are struggling with and really be contributing members to our community and our society."