activities to enrich her socially and culturally. From ballet and martial arts, to tennis and Spanish classes, Jasmine sometimes mixes up her still-developing three languages (English, Spanish and Laotian), but loves being engaged in different activities. Rose Davidson and her brood never miss a multicultural social opportunity, such as the fiesta celebration that benefits their school’s English as a Second Language (ESL) program or the Salsa dancing event sponsored by her church where her kids learn a few dance steps while munching on authentic Spanish morsels.
These local moms have figured something out: the face of North Texas is changing and our education system, for one, isn’t preparing all of our youth, particularly minorities, for the competitive global marketplace. And, that’s a problem, considering by 2015, when your fourth grader graduates high school, Hispanics will have become the majority group in Texas.
Who we are
"I remember growing up as the only Hispanic family in our neighborhood. As children, my sisters and I were the oddity. We’re not the oddity anymore, and neither are my children,” says Teresa Katsulos, of Plano.
Though the image of Dallas as the oil-boom stomping grounds of moneyed, affluent and mostly white residents persists, minorities make up the majority of our beloved Big D. In fact, African Americans, Asians and Hispanics combined outnumber the Anglo population, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC).
The immigration boom echoes most strongly in public schools. In the Plano Independent School District where 80 different languages are spoken, Hispanic students comprise 15 percent of the student population of 52,816 people according to a Texas Education Agency (TEA) report. Anglo students make up 57 percent of the district, African-American students comprise 11 percent and Asians make up 17 percent. Within Dallas ISD where more than one third are considered English As a Second Language or Limited English Proficient, the numbers are 5 percent Anglo, 63 percent Hispanic, 31 percent African American and 1 percent Asian (see sidebar for a sample of local school district numbers, p. 28). In fact, citywide, the Hispanic population of Dallas County has surged by more than 109 percent since 1990 and by more than 178 percent in Collin County.
The key issue facing Texas? How do we reduce the economic and educational disparities prevalent among the state’s ethnic groups as the population continues to grow and evolve?
According to economic research presented by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. For the Texas economy to remain robust, it is essential that the state’s education system make progress on at least two fronts: (1) investing in resources to improve overall student achievement and (2) developing programs that help bridge the educational attainment gap between racial and ethnic groups. The next generation is diverse, and it needs a new skill set to thrive and produce global leaders.
Dallas’ Greenhill School is doing just that with its diversity program. Director of Multicultural Programs, Dr. Karen Bradberry, says the school was founded on principles of diversity during the onset of the civil rights movement, but it has definitely hit its stride in the past few years.
Greenhill knows it is essential to breed kids with a sense of cultural, ethnic and religious diversity. “We have to get them ready” for the future, says Bradberry. With students of color comprising 28 percent of its student body, she says Greenhill’s diversity programs allow those students to learn about themselves, while educating all students about each other, and the broader community. “It [diversity] is ongoing, in-you-face, everyday,” she says, and Greenhill’s students aren’t just educated in the basics, they are educated to be “activists for diversity.”
Dallas: Flat in More Ways Than One
If you grew up watching the U.S.’s burgeoning space program, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or our victory in the first Gulf War, you’re no doubt convinced of our superiority as a world power. The reality is, however, that the U.S. is teetering atop its pedestal—a consequence Thomas L. Friedman describes in his acclaimed book The World Is Flat.
The Internet revolution is just one way in which the world has gotten smaller since the mid 1990s. And, countries like India, China and all of Europe have developed extremely high educational standards, producing vast pools of multi-lingual, forward-thinking job candidates. Now, put highly skilled, foreign graduates together with the instant communication of the Internet, and you have outsourcing — the dreaded phenomenon that may rob your kids of crucial job opportunities.
For instance, a firm can pay a qualified engineer in India just $7,000 a year to do the same work as a U.S.-based engineer who would earn $65,000, according to Dr. Susan Sclafani, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and now managing director of the Chartwell Education Group.
It is not the possibility of a growing lower class that should concern parents, warns Sclafani, but instead the likelihood that kids of all class levels are not going to be competitive in a job market with their overseas peers. “Kids [wealthy or not] are no going to get the high-paying jobs here if they [companies] can send them over to India,” advises Sclafani. So, if the economy sinks, affluent and educated kids are going to be just as affected as everyone else. It’s creativity, cultural competence, innovation and high-level thinking skills that will give students an edge over their lower-paid international rivals. And, Sclafani adds, if we don’t confront the issues locally, Texas will son fall below Mississippi (which currently sits 50 out of 50 states in terms of quality of education) on the achievement scales.
“The first challenge is a change in attitudes and expectations,” she urges.
Education and Economic Growth
But is your child getting what he needs to succeed? And what about your child’s classmates or the kids living down the street? Are they receiving a sound education, and why does it matter to you?
It’s paramount because Texas children, from all demographics and income levels, will all make up the same workforce. Your child may be part of an ethnic majority in the classroom, but that won’t matter in the long run. Kids who attend private schools and the top public schools are a small minority, and this widening cultural-social gap doesn’t allow for the fact that students without means and advantages still have potential to be successful.
“Intelligence is equally distributed” among races, claims Sclafani. “We just have to create the system that will help [all children] succeed.”
Based on the opportunities and the education we give them, this generation of students will either drive up or down the U.S. economy, and will have the potential to keep the U.S. on top of the world.
Dr. Bernard Weinstein, director of the Center for Economic Development and Research at the University of North Texas, puts the situation in very simple terms: “Public education is an economic development issue.” We have a responsibility to help adequately educate the entire population of children, and not solely our own.
Why? Because educating all children will not only help ensure them a solid future, but also to ensure that we all enjoy the same high standard of living that we’re accustomed to. According to the Texas comptroller, every dollar invested in Texas’ higher education system returns $5 or more to the Texas economy. Hence, it is essential that the education system keep up with the state’s changing demographics.
Weinstein suggests parents look at education as related to economic growth in two ways: (1) Companies invest in things like technology that stimulate economic growth and enhance productivity and revenues. So, kids need skills to be able to adapt to, and with, this technology. (2) Investments in people, including social services and education, also stimulate growth.
“The better educated they [students] are, the more productive they will be,” he explains, which “benefits the individual and society over time.”
If less-educated people are not able to be as productive in the economy, they will end up costing society more than they contribute. This means increasing unemployment, higher taxes and spikes in crime. It becomes clearer why educating the whole population of children is an issue that is personal to everyone.
What’s the Problem with Schools Today?
The hard truth is the current state of education is failing kids, even in best districts and private schools. The U.S. educational system has changed little since the 19th century, which was developed to meet the needs of the Industrial Revolution when factory production jobs provided a comfortable living.
While your child may be outscoring some or many of his peers on standardized tests, most experts today say it’s our standards that are the problem, not the rate of passing or failing tests. Sclafani says we hold our American students (yes, we Texans, too) to appallingly low standards, and it’s not a problem that can be corrected by No Child Left Behind (NCLB).
Our low education standards present three big problems and do all students a tremendous disservice: (1) Immigrant students are far less likely to catch up academically and socially to their native English-speaking peers. (2) Testing students using low standards and outdated tests gives students a false sense that they’ll be competent to compete in a global workforce. (3) Maintaining these low standards ensures the U.S. will stay far behind other nations in student achievement.
According to Sclafani, there are very few incentives for students of all backgrounds to work hard. Students simply aren’t rewarded for innovative thinking.
The 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—aka the Nation’s Report Card—confirms that our standards are low. Although Texas students scored at or above the national average in reading, math, science and writing on the exam that year, it’s the breakdown of the scores that is troubling.
On the fourth grade mathematics test (English and Spanish versions combined), for example, 47 percent of the scores showed what NAEP considers a “basic” proficiency. A mere 35 percent of the scores qualified as “proficient” and an overwhelmingly low 5 percent “advanced.” The conclusion: Texas students might be passing exams, but they are not doing so with flying colors.
While NCLB aims to bring all students up to grade-level proficiency, the general consensus is that it more often just pushes kids through the system with only the bare minimum. To combat this, the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, a function of the National Center on Education and the Economy (and of which Sclafani is a member), has issued a report called Tough Choices or Tough Times, which offers recommendations for helping the U.S. increase the quality of students and workers it produces for the 21st century economy.
The report says, among other things, that if the U.S. wants to stay on top as a world power, it needs to nurture high-level thinking, language and communication skills, as well as creativity for all students. Meaning mosaic masterpieces crafted from macaroni and glue may actually serve a higher purpose than simply keeping kindergarteners occupied.
Among the recommendations it offers are cutting wasteful spending in school districts; obtaining and maintaining highly qualified teachers; and instituting board examinations to be administered around the age of 16 that would admit a student to a university, trade school or community college based on individual achievement.
Sclafani is resolute that these massive changes to the system won’t cost taxpayers a fortune. It’s about taking the money we have, she says, and using it differently. When you establish standards that all students find worth meeting, she continues, that’s the key to children’s futures.
The Creativity Conundrum
The loss of arts programs, music and physical education is partly to blame for kids’ meager amounts of innovative ingenuity. A lack of creativity not only diminishes kids’ future employability, but it also hinders their cultural and social growth and sensitivity.
In the absence of strong art curricula in schools, Sclafani says there should be afterschool programs run by local arts councils for the entire community. “The local orchestra should be making seats available for those who can’t afford it,” she adds, as an example. But whether or not a family can afford tickets to the symphony, exposure is really the key.
“There ought to be opportunities for kids to grow up with this as part of their cultural heritage,” she continues, and exposure to the arts works both ways. It shows kids there are lots of ways to be creative, and it also helps for the “long-term viability” of the arts. Translation: Why aren’t kids interested in opera? Because they’re not exposed to it.
The recently launched Dallas Arts Learning Initiative (DALI) aims for maximum exposure to the arts for Dallas youth. DALI, a partnership among the City of Dallas, DISD and local cultural organizations, will help the district’s 100,000 students meet creativity head-on and expand their cultural competences both in and outside of school. The program guarantees students a 45-minute block of music education and 45 minutes of art education each week. By bringing together students, educators and the artists themselves, the program gives kids an edge in creative fields. It provides tools for teachers to bring the arts into their classrooms. It helps community centers provide more exciting, varied programs to students who see little diversity. And of course, part of the Initiative’s plan is that the exposure will result in students performing better in school.
Greenhill uses culture to inspire creativity among students and fuses these elements into the curriculum. For example, a third grade class is paired with a first grade class for an academic unit on African American heritage. The students study poetry, literature and more from prominent, historical African Americans, and celebrate their knowledge by cooking a soul food feast. After a little exposure to different cultures in the early years, Bradberry has found that Greenhill students look forward to pitching their own ideas for diversity programs. Young students anticipate joining the middle school’s diversity club, and all students get excited about contributing to the school’s annual diversity celebration: “Peace, Love and Diversity.”
And language skills can contribute just as much as the arts to a child’s cultural understanding and creativity. As anyone who’s ever stumbled through a high school or college foreign language class can attest, children have a far greater capacity for languages than adults.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports 32.5 percent of Dallas County households spoke languages other than English in 2000. In Collin County, that number is 18.5 percent. With between 20 and 40 percent of families speaking languages other than English at home, that’s a large population of children who need all the help we can offer to help them catch up in school. Eighty-one percent of third graders passed the reading section of the TAKS in Spanish this year, a number the state is proud of. The passing rate is up five percent over last year, but these gains are only going to become more difficult if we allow the achievement gap to widen.
On the flip side, English-speaking students need opportunities to develop and practice skills in other languages, as well as children who speak languages beyond Spanish. “I believe we focus primarily on our Hispanic students in our current education system and forget there are also students from other ethnic backgrounds in our schools,” reports an area ESL teacher, who requested that her name be withheld. Improving the English skills and achievement of non-native speakers, and providing all students with the opportunities to learn new languages will help close the gap and level the playing field.
The younger the better — a fact that’s not lost on Dallas parents. Teresa Katsulos’ children attend(ed) a north Dallas private, Spanish-immersion preschool. In her family’s case, the children’s proficiency with Spanish is one way for them to connect with their Colombian-born grandparents. “The grandparent bond is very strong,” reports Katsulos. “Even if my kids speak to me in English, they will speak to their grandmother (who is standing next to me) in Spanish.” And, furthermore, the Katsulos family regards language skills as an asset, because, as she says, “You never know what career roads your children will take.”
“Obviously, this is an advantage in the job market,” shares Anne Marie Weiss, executive director of DFW International Community Alliance. In Europe, she says, most students learn one or two languages other than their own in school, and when they graduate, they are fluent.
Linda Kolb, of Plano, agrees. Although not a native Spanish-speaker herself, Kolb tries to pass on simple words and phrases to her daughter, who she says does not receive language classes through her school district. “This world is truly global, and our children need to learn at least one other language and preferably more if they are to succeed in the business world in 15-25 years,” she advises, adding that she’ll urge her 4-year-old to pursue both Spanish and Chinese.
What Can We Do Here and Now?
Short of any major, sweeping governmental changes, there are smaller, though important, ways to amp up the cultural component in local schools, both public and private. Weiss, who was an educator for nine years at a Dallas private school noticed the institution’s English department relied on the same authors and novels it had for generations. Why not inject some works from authors of various backgrounds, she thought? In addition, younger children need hands-on, interactive experiences, she says, and many schools take opportunities to invite foreign-born parents in to talk about their countries.
Kumari Nallakumar, local mom of one, who is Malaysian of Indian origin, suggests that teachers promote world geography at the earliest possible grade. “Have an international week at public schools and you will be surprised with what you see and how interesting and fascinating it will be not only for the kids, but also for their parents and families,” she offers.
“Another thing teachers can do is recognize students for something they do that may not be within the American pattern, and link to what they’re learning [in class],” she recalls, citing a Hindu student who shared his custom of bathing in oil on holy days, and then tying that knowledge to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Even when teachers feel stretched to the max, they can, and should, always rely on children and their parents as resources, she adds.
While personal enrichment can do wonders, it’s still important to remember that education affects everyone.
Scalfani cautions against educating and raising kids in protective “bubbles.” “The infections from the general community are going to come into their bubbles. That’s crime, that’s epidemics, that’s lower standards of living,” and that’s a shared responsibility, she notes.
If simply passing isn’t good enough for your child, it shouldn’t be good enough for someone else’s either. Look at it this way: compare education to business. No company is satisfied with marginal profits. To slide by with minimal gains over last year is unacceptable. But our education system functions this way, and it’s time to raise the standards of achievement for everyone.
As parents, we all want a bright future for our children, affirms Donna Arceneaux, a local mom. Many of her daughter’s friends are the children of immigrants. “It amazes me how they [kids] are completely bilingual in English and their parents’ native language…living in a growing area with many new homes and good schools just underscores the fact that we all basically want the same things for ourselves and our children: to live in a nice community that is clean, progressive and family oriented.”
The government’s NCLB policy is a step in the right direction, but experts like Sclafani, believe today’s diverse student body needs much more. “What I hope we’re doing here at Greenhill,” says Bradberry, “is giving them the tools they need to see when there’s injustice in the world and be motivated and know how to do something about it.” And, it starts with a change in attitudes. Children are equally capable of learning, but their success depends on the resources we all allow them and the standards we hold them to.