The Kent School District this year became the seventh Seattle-area district in which minority students outnumber white students. It's part of a demographic shift that's happening in districts across Washington and the nation — one fueled by immigration and a minority population that's younger than the white population and has a higher birth rate.
Not long after Edward Lee Vargas was named superintendent of the Kent School District, he stood on a playground where most of the students playing soccer, swinging from the jungle gym or batting tetherballs were Asian, Hispanic or black.
Eight years ago, the students at this school, Scenic Hill Elementary, as well as at many other Kent schools, were largely white.
But this past school year the Kent School District became the seventh Seattle-area district in which the majority of students are minorities, joining Seattle, Tukwila, Highline, Renton, Federal Way and Tacoma.
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The change is part of a demographic shift that’s happening in districts across Washington and the nation.
It’s fueled in part by immigration and, in Washington, by the fact that the minority population is younger and growing faster than the white population, whose birth rate is declining, according to a draft report by Washington State University professor Annabel Kirschner.
Washington’s white population continues to rise, but minority groups — especially those of Hispanic and Asian descent — are growing faster, especially among residents under age 18, the report said.
In Kent, where students speak more than 100 different languages, district administrators require mandatory diversity training for staff; opened a refugee center to support immigrant students and their families; and beefed up the district’s English-language programs.
The growing diversity in Washington schools “has huge implications for how we teach,” said Marge Plecki, associate professor of education at the University of Washington.
New and veteran teachers alike, she said, say they need more help in meeting the needs of all their students.
This year, Kent hired Vargas as its new superintendent and the Bellevue School District hired Amalia Cudeiro — thought to be the first two Hispanics to lead school districts in Western Washington.
Cudeiro migrated to the U.S. from Cuba as a child. Vargas’ family has roots in New Mexico back to the 1700s, when Spain controlled the area.
While their ethnic background was not a big factor in why they were hired, it will be a bonus, say school-board members in both districts.
“That was probably what tipped the scale,” said Kent School Board member Bill Boyce. Some parents and teachers welcome their presence as well, hoping they will be role models for students and build better relationships with parents.
“It helps break down barriers,” said Wally Clausen, Scenic Hill’s principal.
In Bellevue, Cudeiro recently attended a meeting of Latino parents and was able to communicate more fully with them by answering questions in Spanish, said Gustavo Tejada, a parent who volunteers with a group that helps Latino parents and students navigate the school system.
“People from our community are going to feel more comfortable with the things that the school district is doing,” he said.
Growth in most districts
With the exception of Seattle and a few small districts, all the school districts in King and Snohomish counties have a higher percentage of minority students than they did five years ago.
Tukwila, which had the highest percentage of minority students in the 2003-04 school year, has even more now — a nearly equal mix of whites, Asians, Hispanics and blacks. Earlier this year, The New York Times called it the most diverse school district in the nation.
Kent — the state’s fourth-largest district — has undergone the most rapid change among Puget Sound districts, from about one-third minorities five years ago to about 51 percent this past school year.
No one tracks exactly why that’s occurred, but district officials mention the efforts of area churches and businesses to bring immigrants to the area, the availability of low-cost apartments and Kent’s reputation as having good schools.
After English, Spanish is the most commonly used language in the Kent School District.
The increase in Spanish-speaking families is apparent in the number of Hispanic-owned businesses in town and in the churches, says Roger Barron, a Kent resident who worked in the state’s bilingual-education department for years. The Spanish-language Masses at his Catholic church are standing-room only, he said.
And the growing diversity is expected to continue. By 2030, according to state projections, nearly one in three Washington residents will be a minority. For residents under age 18, minorities will make up almost 40 percent.
Kent’s changing population is one reason Vargas felt the school district would be a good fit for him.
He’s known for raising student achievement in very diverse school districts in California, New Mexico and Texas, and he’s committed to doing the same in Kent.
In 2006, he was named California superintendent of the year, in part because of the gains in academic achievement when he led the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District in the Los Angeles area.
In the late 1980s and early ’90s, he was director of student-support services in the Seattle School District. Most recently, he worked for a foundation where he assisted school districts across the country.
He said he’s impressed with what he’s seen and heard in Kent, including discussions among teachers about how to reach every child.
“It’s so important for us to embrace the diversity,” he said.
Neither of his parents graduated from high school. His mother is a hair stylist and his father joined the Navy at 16, then worked in San Francisco’s shipyards and the construction business.
But they wanted their children to go to college — so much so that Vargas recalls his mother once telling him he was going even if she had “to eat rats to do it.”
And as he has done at his past districts, Vargas plans to send every Kent kindergartner on a field trip to a college campus, just to get them thinking about higher education early on.
“It’s important,” he said, “to put that belief in their head and drive in their heart.”
Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org