More than 60 school districts in Washington now educate mostly students of color, and many of those kids are refugees, speaking dozens of languages. Chris Reykdal, the state’s incoming education chief, says that means big changes are necessary.

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In Lake Washington schools, the student body is changing color. The same is true, to an even greater degree, for student populations in Bellevue, Mukilteo, Kent, Seattle, Renton and dozens of other districts where nonwhite youths now occupy a majority of classroom seats.

In largely white Washington, 65 of the state’s 295 school districts now educate more students of color than they do Caucasians. That change, which is expected to continue, has already had significant economic repercussions.

At the national level, public schools became majority-minority in 2014. In Washington — currently at 56 percent white students — the shift has been slower, but appears to be ramping up. As recently as 2010, Washington’s student body was 64 percent white.

Majority-minority districts in the Puget Sound area

Auburn, Bellevue, Clover Park, Federal Way, Franklin Pierce, Highline, Kent, Mount Vernon, Mukilteo, Renton, Seattle, Tacoma, Tukwila

Districts within 2 percentage points of becoming majority-minority

Edmonds, Everett, Fife, North Thurston, Steilacoom, University Place

Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction


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Incoming schools chief Chris Reykdal says the trend will necessitate significant policy changes, partly because a growing number of Washington students are immigrants who don’t speak English at home.

High on Reykdal’s list: hiring more bilingual teachers by recruiting in communities of color (Latinos are still the state’s fastest-growing group), providing pay incentives and creating a pathway to teacher certification for paraeducators currently working in Washington schools.

The state already bumps teachers’ pay by $5,000 for those who go through the rigorous national board-certifcation process, so why not a similar bonus to encourage bilingualism, Reykdal suggests.

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“We have to be way more intentional about this,” he said. “We can’t have a teaching force that’s 80 or 85 percent white when our students are going to be more than 50 percent students of color. I don’t know when exactly we’re going to cross that line, but we are going to cross it.”

The state is spending $33 million more on English-language classes than it did in 2011, and demographic forecasts predict the number of students needing similar help will grow by more than 10,000 — or about 9 percent — in the next two years.

In individual districts, the shifts are even more dramatic. The number of white students in Kent, for example, dropped by nearly 2,750, or 21.6 percent, since 2010.

In Lake Washington — growing so fast that it recently became the third-largest district in the state — the white population is down 11 percentage points from 2010.

Tracking such numbers is no demographic parlor game.

Bellevue’s 20,000 students speak more than 80 languages. The same goes for Tukwila, where the International Rescue Committee has been resettling families for the past 10 years. Almost half that district’s 3,000 students — who come from Somalia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Iraq, Eritrea, Nepal and Jordan, among other places — qualify for English-language services and 80 percent are low-income, a radical change from the 1990s, when 80 percent of Tukwila was white and middle class.

“We need to be honest and look in the mirror,” Reykdal said. “Twenty-one percent of Washington’s students are not graduating on time — or at all — and they don’t look like the 79 percent who are. They are mostly from poverty. They are students of color and LGBTQ students. We have an enormous challenge ahead of us, and we have to do things differently.”