A peek inside any classroom at Bemiss Elementary School is evidence of Spokane’s growing diversity among youth.
Nearly 27 percent of the north-central school’s students are a member of a racial or ethnic minority, according to data from Spokane Public Schools. Five of the district’s 34 elementary schools now have more than 1 in 4 nonwhite students, and the district’s overall diversity has increased 11 percent since 2000.
The schools are a sample of a changing local population.
Youth are twice as diverse as the over-17 population in Spokane and Spokane County, according to 2010 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Spokane’s youth are 21.5 percent nonwhite, while the adult population is 11 percent.
Experts say there are a few reasons for the growing diversity among young people: America’s doing a better job of counting people; interracial couples are becoming more accepted; the recession is drawing people to urban areas for work; and immigrants and people of color are having larger families.
“We are keeping better track of who’s out there,” said Annabel Kirschner, an emeritus professor in Washington State University’s Department of Community and Rural Sociology. “In the census, aside from the major racial categories, there also is a two-or-more-races category, so people in the past who might have considered themselves just white are checking the two-or-more.”
According to the census, the third-largest population in Spokane is “two or more races,” after White and Hispanic origin.
Terry MacMullan, an Eastern Washington University professor, said in addition to the newer race category, “People are becoming less concerned with race, especially among younger people, so there’s more interracial mixing and more children.”
A prime example of America’s acceptance, he added, is that Barack Obama was elected president.
MacMullan, who specializes in American philosophy, political philosophy and philosophy of race, said that in his personal experience, he’s seen more diversity in Spokane. “Since coming here nine years ago, Spokane has changed visibly.”
A struggling economy has also increased the region’s diversity.
“It’s a pretty common phenomenon during an economic downturn,” said Mark Mattke, executive director of the Spokane-area Workforce Development Council. “People move from the rural areas” for jobs or housing, or both.
Spokane has the largest job base between Seattle and Minneapolis, one Spokane economist noted.
“We are a more immigrant society. … As much as people try to change that, more than anything else that is the cultural makeup of the U.S.,” MacMullan said. “We (the U.S.) are the place around the world that people want to come to.”
People who immigrate are typically young, Kirschner said. “And immigrants bring with them their children, and if they don’t bring their children they bring their childbearing abilities. The only countries that are growing are those experiencing immigration.”
With the increasing diversity among youth comes a concern about making sure students of various backgrounds succeed in school.
“If most of our growth is going to come from nonwhite population, it is critical that those groups get a good education in K-12. Because right now the dropout rate in schools is highest among ethnic groups,” Kirschner said. “Not only do they need to graduate, they need to go on to college.”
Spokane Public Schools officials say they are doing more to track progress among students and improve graduation rates.
Student learning assessments, for example, are done every six to eight weeks, “so we can see how each school is doing with their students of color – broken up by race, also divided by poverty and gender,” said Tammy Campbell, the district’s executive director of curriculum. If any one of those groups has low scores, “we figure out how to help them,” she said.
Said Kirschner, “A majority of our taxes come from those in the work force. In order for that to happen, we need to make sure the nonwhite population is just as well-educated as the white population.”