Minnesota prepares for challenge as minorities become classroom majority

/ 17 May 2012 / jennifer

MaryJo Webster and Mila Koumpilova, Pioneer Press, May 17, 2012 –

A look at Minnesota’s youngest residents spells change for a state that is overwhelmingly white.

Minorities make up 17 percent of Minnesota’s population but 30 percent of its preschool-age ranks, according to newly released U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

For the first time, the under age 5 set in Ramsey County and other areas of the state has reached what demographers call “majority-minority”: There are more children of color than there are white children. That’s also the age group that has diversified more rapidly than any other over the past decade.

In a state with one of the widest achievement gaps between students of color and their peers, educators are watching these demographic changes closely.

A recent influx of federal dollars is helping to propel a major push to tackle the gap, particularly focused on ensuring preschoolers are ready for kindergarten.

Even though the minority makeup of Minnesota’s under age 5 population has increased about 9 percentage points in a decade, the state still lags the rest of the nation. Minorities make up just under half of the U.S. preschool-age population. Minority is defined as anyone who is not white and not Hispanic.

The Census Bureau reported Thursday, May 17, that nationwide, the percentage of babies — those younger than age 1 — who are minority has tipped past the 50 percent mark for the first time, making the group majority-minority. In Minnesota, minorities make up about 28 percent of those younger than 1.

“We’ve been increasing our diversity at much the same rate as the U.S. overall, but we began at a much lower level,” said state demographer Susan Brower.

In three Minnesota counties — Ramsey, Mahnomen and Nobles — minorities now make up more than half of the under age 5 population. Ramsey County and Nobles County, which has attracted minorities to work in the agriculture industry, both tipped past the 50 percent mark for this age group in recent years. Mahnomen, which is predominately American Indian, has long been majority-minority.

Ramsey and Nobles counties have a stark contrast between youths and adults. Minorities make up more than half of the under-20 population in both counties, but only about 30 percent of the adults.

Brower said an increasing number of the minority children in the state either are second- or third-generation Americans or came here with parents who have high-paying jobs and high education levels.

“There is a lot of socio-economic diversity in this young group,” Brower said. “It’s not only children who are in need of special or intensive services.”


Still, the state’s changing demographics add urgency to recent efforts to address Minnesota’s “school readiness gap,” said Arthur Reynolds, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development.

Children of color are much less likely to enter kindergarten ready to succeed in school, he said. In a recent study of Minnesota students entering kindergarten, 58 percent of white children were found to be ready, compared with 40 percent of black children and 32 percent of Hispanic children.

A number of major federal grants announced in recent months will fuel efforts to address the issue.

Minnesota’s Department of Education won a $45 million federal Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant, which will fund a new system to rate the quality of child care, among other programs.

Reynolds is leading an effort to expand a Chicago initiative that offers children from high-poverty neighborhoods extra support from preschool through third grade. It’s being funded by a $15 million federal grant, which will help establish the program in districts across the upper Midwest, including St. Paul.

St. Paul has seen rapid growth among the minority students who, at about 75 percent today, make up a clear majority in the state’s second-largest school district. St. Paul has the largest percentage of Hmong and Karen students of any district in the country.

“This is not news to us,” Superintendent Valeria Silva said of the changing demographics of the metro area’s youngest learners. “We’re much more ahead of the game than most other districts, especially our suburban districts.”

Silva said the district embraces the diversity of perspectives that come from a more diverse student body, pointing out that minority students are well represented among the district’s top 10 graduates this year.

Strong Schools, Strong Communities — Silva’s three-year push to narrow the district’s achievement gap — drew on projections that the ranks of students of color will continue to grow.

The district has one of the area’s first preschool programs for 4-year-olds. It now serves about 1,200 kids, with another 700 on a waiting list. With money from a tax levy voters approved in 2007, the district also launched a full-day kindergarten program.

Advocates for low-income and minority students have long criticized state funding that only covers half-day kindergarten.

“Early intervention is the only way we’re going to close the achievement gap,” said Silva, adding, “If we know early education is one of the big, big keys in closing the achievement gap, why is the state not funding all-day kindergarten?”

Because of growing diversity, Burnsville-Eagan-Savage recently decided to focus on its incoming kindergarteners, since only about half show up ready to tackle math and reading.

This year, the district launched its Ready for Kindergarten program — a series of three 90-minute sessions for parents of 4- and 5-year-olds. Next year, the district will expand the program to parents of younger children, said coordinator Carmen Cook.

“The goal will be to get kids as soon as they’re born, basically,” Cook said.

MaryJo Webster can be reached at 651-228-5507 or mwebster@pioneerpress.com. Follow her at twitter.com/mndatamine.

Mila Koumpilova can be reached at 651-228-2171 or mkoumpilova@pioneerpress.com. Follow her at twitter.com/MilaPiPress.