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Demographic Shift in Schools Offers Opportunity to Address School Health with Fresh Perspectives

Catherine is a senior communications professional helping social change organizations tell their story in powerful ways. She has expertise in public health, environmental stewardship, philanthropy and education. Follow her on Twitter @CatBrozena

With all the excitement of back-to-school preparations currently going on in households and schools across the country, you may have missed an important headline in last week’s news about the very make-up of our nation’s school population.

For the first time ever, the overall number of Latino, African-American and Asian students who make up K-12 public schools is expected to surpass the number of non-Hispanic whites. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that the collective percentage of minority students – 50.3 percent – will now make up the majority. Such a demographic shift is a notable milestone, offering a opportunity to look at our education system in a whole new way.

In a recent article published in Education Week, author Lesli Maxwell highlights how minority students have a long history of being disadvantaged in the public education system, with many students of color and those hailing from low-income communities often having to go without the kinds of educational resources in the classroom that white students traditionally have access to. Such disadvantages have often resulted in a performance gap between students of color and white students that has yet to be fully addressed by the education system.

“The United States must vastly improve the educational outcomes for this new and diverse majority of American students, whose success is inextricably linked to the well-being of the nation,” writes Maxwell.

For those working to create a culture of health in schools, this shift in demographics means rethinking how we engage school populations in healthful pursuits. It means rethinking health interventions — promoting healthy eating and greater physical activity — in ways that students, staff and teachers of multiple cultures can truly understand and embrace. It means being even more sensitive to cultural, racial and language differences that are at play in the dynamics of school environments and being mindful of those dynamics when addressing issues such as student and teacher stress, racial differences, bullying, etc.

The need for looking at all these dynamics with fresh perspectives is echoed in Kimberly Hefling and Jesse J. Holland’s article, White Students No Longer to be the Majority in School:

“The shift creates new academic realities, such as the need for more English language instruction, and cultural ones, meaning changes in school lunch menus to reflect students’ tastes. But it also brings some complex societal questions that often fall to school systems to address, including issues of immigration, poverty, diversity and inequity.”

It may be too early for easy answers in how to address these new demographic realities and the questions that come with them. But it is clear that the milestone we have reached is worthy of pause and reflection as we move ahead into the new school year. The new landscape of American schools invites us to bring fresh perspectives if we truly want to make an impact on the health and well-being of school communities.

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