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As Texas Gets More Diverse, Educators Grab The Bull By The Horns

Students participate in orchestra practice at Dr. John Folks Middle School in suburban San Antonio. The school is brand new and was built with explosive growth in mind — the student population is expected to double to 1,200 within five years.
Melissa Block
Students participate in orchestra practice at Dr. John Folks Middle School in suburban San Antonio. The school is brand new and was built with explosive growth in mind — the student population is expected to double to 1,200 within five years.

Texas is in the midst of a population boom and demographic sea change. It's grown faster than any other state and has more than doubled its population in just 40 years, from 11 to 26 million people.

And overwhelmingly, the fastest growth is among Hispanics who now make up 38 percent of the state's population and will be the largest single group in Texas by 2020.

Majority Minority State

When demographer Steve Murdock, director of Rice University's Hobby Center for the Study of Texas, started tracking this trend decades ago he was met with resistance.

"At first there was a lot of denial," Murdock says. "I like to say that I've become increasingly brilliant over time."

Murdock was named state demographer by Gov. Rick Perry in 2001. He drove all over the state and what he saw was clear: Texas was zooming toward becoming a majority minority state.

"People would say, 'That'll never happen; you're wrong,'" he says.

But it did happen — in 2005. Now, Murdock warns that unless the growing Hispanic population are given access to opportunities, Texas overall will become poorer and less competitive. The state will spiral downward.

"The reality is that the future of Texas will be tied to its minority populations and how well they do is how well we will do," he says.

The key to that future, Murdock says, is better education which leads to higher-paying jobs.

Staggering Growth

That's playing out at Dr. John Folks Middle School, in the far northwestern suburbs of San Antonio. It opened this past August and was built with explosive growth in mind. There are almost 600 students now and that number is expected to double within five years. About 60 percent of the current student body is Hispanic.

This school is part of the Northside Independent School District, the fourth largest in Texas, which is growing by nearly 3,000 students every year. Right now the district opens roughly three new schools every year as the population expands farther and farther away from the city.

It's up to school district superintendent Brian Woods to try to manage the staggering growth.

"It's a little scary. It's one of those things that wakes you up at 3:30 in the morning," Woods says. "How are we managing this? And are we doing the things we need to do, far enough out, to plan for and manage growth?"

Overwhelmingly — as with the state overall — that growth has been Hispanic. He says the district has gone from a primarily Anglo student population to a vast majority Hispanic student population. Which means when Woods' son goes to his Northside elementary school each day, the faces there reflect the new Texas.

"The school that he attends is very diverse — racially and ethnically, and from a socio-economic standpoint. And that's just the norm for him. It would never occur to him, I think, to see the world any other way," Woods says. "I think if you went and looked in his classroom, he would probably be among the, say, 20 percent of students who are Anglo."

Do More With Less

Most of the growth in the Hispanic population in Texas is not from immigration of people across the border from Mexico. Instead, it's driven by people coming from other states or moving within Texas.

The Hispanic numbers grow, too, because the population skews younger with a higher birth rate. It also tends to be more economically disadvantaged with higher poverty levels.

For superintendent Woods, that means he needs more resources and staff to meet the needs of disadvantaged students. So he was dismayed three years ago when the Texas legislature slashed $60 million out of his budget. He had to cut almost 1,000 staff positions at time when his student population was ballooning.

"To ignore the changes in our state and to ignore public education and health care as infrastructure projects, is really to set the state up for dismal times in the out years. These are long-term issues. The great 'Texas Miracle,' to borrow a George Bush phrase, cannot last if we don't fund infrastructure," he says.

It Can't Be Done

Diana Natalicio is fighting the same fight on the higher education level. She's been the president of the University of Texas at El Paso for 26 years.

"I just think squandering talent is one of the ugliest things I ever watch," Natalicio says.

When she looked to the future, she knew the institution had to transform itself — both to better serve the city's low-income, Hispanic population and to raise the university's national standing.

"I was told it couldn't be done. It just can't be done. You can't do high quality higher education with commitment to diversity, with commitment to low-income students because it's just never been done before and you're not going to be able to do it," she says. "And I said, 'Well, we're gonna try.'"

Under Natalicio, the school has doubled its student enrollment. Now 80 percent of the students are Mexican-American, mirroring El Paso. More than half are the first in their families to go to college and nearly all of them work while going to school.

Natalicio says this is the new reality and it can't be ignored.

"The peril is that you will have an undereducated and growing group of young people who won't be able to find employment," she says. "I mean, this is the story in many countries around the world, right? Where, you know, one of the biggest challenges in many of the countries where we're seeing huge unrest is disaffected young people who can't find work and have nothing to do."

Demographer Steve Murdock has called this the "Texas challenge." But, he points out, it's not just Texas — it's a challenge facing the whole country as our demographics shift and minorities become the majority.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
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