EDITORIAL: What’s so good about diversity?

IN THE EARLY 1960s, after the Soviet Union had suddenly leaped ahead of the United States in the space race, schools quickly decided to teach Russian starting in junior high. For kids back then it was hard to grasp why we should learn the language of people we were told wanted to annihilate us. But it didn’t matter all that much in our school, because only the really smart kids got picked to learn Russian.

The rest of us–those considered unlikely to become rocket engineers or nuclear physicists–got put in Spanish classes. We were taught that people in Mexico spoke Spanish and so did people in Antarctica, or was it Argentina? And Spain, too, except with a lisp. None of those folks, it seemed, had nuclear weapons pointed at us, except once Cuba, but that was the Commies’ fault. So we learned how to say in Spanish: “Please tell me the way to the bull ring” and “That bus is very large.”
There were certainly students who continued with their studies of Spanish, but many antsy teenagers didn’t see much point in learning a language when there weren’t places to speak it nearby here in Upstate New York. Spanish seemed abstract and unimportant compared to math, English, history and lunch.Spanish is no longer an afterthought for many schools. The language and the multitude of cultural and historic influences often lumped together as Hispanic or Latino are here to stay in tangible ways. The change in this county is far more gradual than in California and the Southwest, but the nation is on a path to a strikingly more diverse population and we are already part of it. You can see it in local numbers.

The data for the Ichabod Crane Central School District weren’t immediately available in state statistics on the racial and ethnic characteristics of local school enrollment. But for the other five school districts in Columbia County not only has enrollment declined over the past few years and the total enrollment of students identified as white has also dropped, going down 5.5% between 2009 and 2014. But during that same period the enrollment of Latino students rose by 3.1%.

These are trends, not population earthquakes. Students identified as white in the five local districts reporting comprised nearly 3/4 of all students in 2014. Students identified as Latinos accounted for fewer than 9% of kids in grades k through 12 countywide. The changes here are likely to continue, because they are primarily driven by birth rates not immigration. The demographics are inevitable. In less than a decade Hispanic students will be about a 1/3 of all public school students nationwide.

We’ll have fewer, but our schools will still include more Spanish speakers than ever before.

We have choices. We can succumb to fears of change. We can believe in misinformation that we face a threat from outside forces beyond our control. That’s what political bigots and TV bullies like Donald Trump want us to think. They’re eager to exploit public insecurities for their own ends.
Or we could look for the opportunities that come with change, an attitude that used to be referred to as American ingenuity, maybe even the American way.

There is some evidence that speaking two languages makes kids smarter, although the science is far from settled on the matter. But even without evidence that it’ll make our kids more intelligent, diversity will have practical benefits. For example, schools where ideas pass through the filters of multiple languages and traditions enrich the educational experience as well as the life of the whole community.

Cultures do clash. The news and history are full of examples. But isolation is not a solution, even if it were possible, which it’s not. Ignorance and denial don’t work very well, either. We can’t build effective walls around our schools any more than we can afford to wall off our all our borders.
The greatest advantage we have right now is time–time to think about and plan for more diverse student bodies reflecting more diverse communities. Here, it doesn’t have to be done all at once. It’s not an emergency that demands a response. Not yet.

We might start by asking what do our school districts know about how other districts elsewhere in the country have addressed truly pressing needs in response to major shifts in enrollment diversity. What works and what doesn’t? Maybe it’s a project that could involve students. Maybe we’d all learn something new.

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