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Miami setting the standard for educating minorities

Increasing student diversity requires new approach

Chloe Herring | 8/7/2014, 9 a.m.
When Black students around the nation return to school this fall, they may find their experience different from that of ...

When Black students around the nation return to school this fall, they may find their experience different from that of their parents or even older siblings because what they will likely see is more of kids who look like them.

According to projections from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), this school year may represent the first time minority students will outnumber their white counterparts in classrooms across the country.

The revelation of increasing student diversity follows a national trend mostly led by a growing number of births in the Hispanic community. The report predicts that this year white students will make up 49.7 percent of all public school enrollments compared to the 50.3 percent of students of other races. That margin, although small, is expected to widen year after year. It is a recent growing trend in the nation that is familiar to the state of Florida, which has maintained what is being called “minority-majority” school enrollment for more than a decade.

A large number of Hispanic and Black students puts the state at the forefront of education since it could serve as a model for implementing the national Common Core Standards to address minorities’ academic needs.

“While some states across the country still look at diversity as a challenge, we celebrate it,” said Alberto Carvalho, school superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools where Black and Hispanic students outman their white classmates and make up 90.5 percent of student populations.

The Florida Department of Education (FDOE) wants to see improvement in academic performances across racial groups by 2018, according to a controversial 2012 plan that is in line with Common Core. The plan was retorted for using race as a primary factor in creating different goals for children, but much of the criticism neglected to acknowledge expectations to increase Black students’ performance in math by 95 percent and by 85 percent in reading in the upcoming years.

The success of the plan is crucial for minority students who fail to graduate at rates almost two to three times higher than white kids.

Cheryl Etters of FDOE said the answer to improving minority performance in school is found in the classroom.

“That’s where teachers come in,” she said. “They have things in place to deal specifically with challenges [minorities] have.”

But when the challenge for minority students is needing an educator to whom they can relate, Florida may have dropped the ball. Studies show that Black students perform better in subjects taught by Black instructors -- a phenomenon coined the “role model effect.” In Florida many student populations are designated “minority-majority,” meaning the classrooms contain more kids of color. But teacher-student ratio for demographics do not match up. Only about 13.2 percent of nearly 123,000 teachers in Florida are Black while one in five students is Black.

Still, with 15 million U.S. children in urban school districts, the state deserves special attention particularly in Miami-Dade County where Carvalho is churning out results by consistently challenging the status quo. Carvalho said he understands the importance of school faculty who represent the community they serve.

“We recruit and hire on the basis of talent, finding not only those who are the best of their class but who also happen to be demographically representative,” he said. “That’s something that we take huge pride in and these schools are producing wonderful results.”

County-wide efforts put Miami-Dade in the national spotlight after the school district was awarded the Broad Prize in 2012 for closing the achievement gap in education. In 2008 when Carvalho was appointed superintendent, the school system was failing its students. Since then Black students in Miami are 70 percent more successful across all subjects when compared to kids in other states and graduation rates have improved.

“Our excellence is unrivaled nationally and presents itself as a model that is scalable and replicable,” said Carvalho.

Carvalho said magic happens because he partners with communities and allows principals and teachers to present specialized ideas for reform then offers the support faculty need to execute them.

“We have accelerated our performance,” said Carvalho. “Now the question is, ‘Will the rest of the nation actually have the courage to replicate what is in essence a Miami miracle?’”