Hispanic and Latino students now make up more than one quarter of all students at Fairfax County public elementary schools, according to the county’s recently released demographics report for this school year.
For the first time, white students represent less than 40 percent of the elementary student population, representing a continuing shift toward a larger minority presence in county schools, the school system’s annual report shows. However, wider perception of the school system has not changed with the population, said School Board member Ryan McElveen (At-large).
“From outside, we’re still perceived as a wealthy, largely white suburb,” said McElveen. “But from within, we know that is not the case.”
A lifelong Fairfax County resident and 2004 graduate of Marshall High School, McElveen has watched the face of the county evolve.
In the past 20 years, the Hispanic population of the school system has almost quadrupled, reaching more than 43,000 students this year, or 23.6 percent of the school population, according to the Report of Student Membership by Ethnicity, Race and Gender.
The number of white students has decreased by more than 16,000 in the same time frame, to just under 76,000 this year. From the start of the 1993-94 school year, the percentage of white students has dipped 26 points, from 67.4 percent to 41.4 percent of the student body.
“The changes that our school system has seen in the past two decades are striking,” McElveen said. “And with the demographic changes come socio-economic changes in the makeup of our schools.”
McElveen noted that Montgomery County in Maryland faces a similar challenge.
Montgomery, which like Fairfax is one of the 20 biggest school districts in the United States, has seen rapid growth among its minority populations, particularly Hispanic and Latino students. This marks the first year in Montgomery County public schools that Hispanic students make up more of the kindergarten and first grade classes than any other ethnic or racial group.
The key for both counties, McElveen said, is outreach.
The Fairfax County School Board already has made changes to how it allocates resources in the county so it can provide greater support to schools with students who are learning English as a second language or who are eligible for free- and reduced-price meals. The school system also makes an effort to connect with families through community programs.
However, diminishing resources from the county and the state makes it hard to keep up with the “demographic crunch,” McElveen said.
In the short term, the School Board wants to expand efforts of parent liaisons, who work at each school to facilitate the channels of communication between school officials and families. On the county’s long-term wish list is one-to-one computing, or a computer for every student. But facing a budget deficit, both are on hold for the time being.
“We want to expand in a lot of our outreach areas, but with the budget the way that it is, we won’t be able to do that,” McElveen said. “We want to do a lot of things for our expanding population that just aren’t feasible right now.”