One might say that superintendents make the best demographers because they are the first to see demographic changes in their communities as students arrive to school each year. As such, superintendents play an important role to help the public understand demographic and socioeconomic shifts and to better support children, youth, families, and communities.
A group of active and retired D.C.-area superintendents met in the fall of 2015 to address the demographic shifts in the Greater Washington region and the implications for education and economic opportunity. The Washington-Area School Study Council (WASSC), a peer learning network for active and retired superintendents in the D.C. area, hosted the event with IEL, which has paid close attention to demography for decades, including running a Center for Demographic Policy in the 1980s and 90s.
The event drew on the expertise of three speakers, who addressed demographic shifts and their implications from a national, regional, and local perspective: William Frey, Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution, Metropolitan Policy Program; Terry L. Clower, Director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University; and Bruce Crispell, Director of the Division of Long-Range Planning for Montgomery County Public Schools.
Frey highlighted findings from his book Diversity Explosion, noting that 49% of children under five in the U.S. are children of color. By 2050, the U.S. is projected to be a ”no racial majority” nation. The demographic changes are occurring by generations, as the more rapidly aging white population decreases and a young Hispanic population increases. He noted that the demographic trends offer an opportunity for integration of students in cities and suburbs and for reducing neighborhood segregation in the future.
Clower honed in on the D.C. area, noting that as the median house sale prices continue to increase, more people are taking on second jobs to get by and are seeking more affordable housing in the outer rings of the region. Federal government jobs are also becoming less reliable as budget cuts have decreased employment opportunities in this sector since 2010, when 40% of jobs in the D.C. area were tied to the federal government. The most significant regional growth is in professional and business services, education and health, and leisure and hospitality industries. The region continues to be demographically diverse, with international residents contributing to the largest growth within the District.
Crispell noted that in 1972 only 4% of students in Montgomery County were eligible for free-and reduced-price lunch, and now 35% are, and 80% of eligible students qualify for free lunch. This rapid change reflects a larger national trend of poverty moving to the suburbs and the need for counties to change their policies and practices to respond to the needs of their student populations.
Superintendents affirmed that each of their districts or counties—whether urban, suburban, or rural—are undergoing rapid demographic and socioeconomic shifts. As district leaders, they know they play crucial roles in informing others of these changes and leading efforts to get local elected officials and civic and business leaders to embrace and support schools as these changes continue. One area superintendent recently opened two new international high schools designed to meet the educational needs of immigrant students with limited English language skills.
For all superintendents in the Washington metropolitan area—and across the country—these demographics shifts demand courageous leadership. Leadership explains how their student populations are changing and what kinds of investments and changes in practices are needed to respond. Ultimately, they must rally their communities around a common vision of success for all students.