Across the country, suburbs like Montgomery County are going through a metamorphosis, shedding the cocoon of highly educated affluence for a new identity that is browner, poorer, and far more ethnically diverse: “It’s a whole new scenario,” Portela said, “with the same rules and procedures we had from 30 years ago when the county was mostly white.” An influx of English-language learners and refugee students is altering the look and feel of suburban schools—as school districts respond to the dramatic shift with mixed results, and against the backdrop of a rising anti-immigrant climate.
William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, a D.C.-based think tank, wrote in New Republic in 2014 that the Hispanic population grew in all the suburbs of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas between 2000 and 2010. Over a 20-year span (1990-2010), data from the U.S. Census shows the white suburban population dropped from 81 percent to 65 percent, as the Hispanic suburban population more than doubled—from 8 percent to 17 percent. The white population declined and the Hispanic population rose in cities as well, but the change seen in the suburbs was sharper.
The number of people living in poverty in the suburbs also exceeds that in urban areas. In testimony earlier this month before a House of Representatives Ways and Means subcommittee, Elizabeth Kneebone, the co-author of Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, offered a stark look at the figures: In 2015, for the first time on record, suburbs surpassed cities in the number of residents living in poverty—16 million in the suburbs, outpacing cities by more than 3 million people.
For youth and families, economic hardship and a lack of English proficiency can make navigating the school bureaucracy especially daunting, hindering parent engagement and students’ education. At Blair High School, one of the largest in Montgomery County with nearly 3,000 students, Hispanics are the single largest racial or ethnic group (32 percent); Spanish is the most frequently spoken language at home; and more than half of students (55 percent) are eligible for free-and-reduced meals, a common indicator of poverty.
According to Portela, the parent advocate, the challenges range from a mismatch of skills—out of some 12 counselors at Blair, only one is Spanish-speaking and devoted to English-language learners with no previous schooling—to cultural misunderstandings—teachers mislabeling students as shy, uninterested, or aggressive because those educators lack knowledge of and insight into Latino culture.* “Being bilingual is good, but you also need to understand the ethnic [uniqueness],” she said. “A girl from rural Central America … they are taught not to talk back. We have a lot of teachers complaining that the girls don’t participate, they don’t get involved in class. At the same time, we have kids that are very outspoken, because in their culture, male is the voice of authority. So unless [teachers] understand all these little details, it’s very difficult to engage a student.”