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The changing face of Fox Valley classrooms

Equity for all students is topic special importance District U46 Superintendant Dr. Jose Torres part U46 5-year accountability plan.

Equity for all students is a topic of special importance to District U46 Superintendant Dr. Jose Torres and part of the U46 5-year accountability plan. September 26, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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At a glance


41,360 students

30.9 percent white

50.3 percent Hispanic

6.8 percent black

8.4 percent Asian


20,882 students

52.2 percent white

33.8 percent Hispanic

5.5 percent black

6.0 percent Asian

Source: 2012-13 school year data, courtesy of Elgin School District U46 and Community Unit School District 300.

WBEZ Map:Diversity in our schools
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Updated: December 26, 2012 6:01AM

Erick Aguilar, 17, of Streamwood had gone to Bartlett High School his freshman year. It was “mostly white,” he said. So when he transferred to Streamwood High School his sophomore year, he was “surprised.”

In a good way, he added.

“I’m Hispanic. I like to see a lot of not only Hispanic people, but…” said Erick, now a senior.

“…everybody being friends?” ventured his schoolmate, junior Mallory Fritz, 16, of Streamwood.

Erick settled on “diversity.”

This school year, for the first time in Elgin School District U46, more students look like Erick than Mallory, who is white.

The racial complexion varies some from school to school in U46, which educates more than 41,000 students at 40 elementary, eight middle and five high schools.

Bartlett High was 20 percent Hispanic and 62 percent white in the 2009-10 school year, one of the district’s 16 majority white schools that year — most in South Elgin and Bartlett, with one each in Streamwood, Wayne and Carol Stream.

Meanwhile, Streamwood High was 47 percent Hispanic and 36 percent white, one of 14 no-majority schools. Another 28 schools were majority Hispanic, mostly in Elgin, reflective of the makeup both of that community and of U46 as a whole.

The second-largest school district in Illinois now is majority Hispanic — 50.3 percent, according to U46 Superintendent Jose Torres. That’s a huge change over a generation, and almost a complete flip-flop of the district’s Hispanic and white student populations just 10 years ago, when the district was 53.3 percent white, according to 2002 Illinois Interactive Report Card data.

Examining school data broken down by race at nearly 2,290 schools that had been compiled this summer by Chicago’s National Public Radio station WBEZ 91.5 as part of its “Race Out Loud” series, reporters from The Courier-News and its sister papers The (Aurora) Beacon-News and Naperville Sun found rapid diversification in Fox Valley schools. That changing face of the classroom brings with it not only opportunities, but also the challenges of teaching kids with different backgrounds, experiences and ways of understanding the world.

Fewer whites

And that mimics the changing demographics not just of the surrounding communities — Elgin also now is majority Hispanic — but also the country, according to 2010 U.S. Census.

“Our schools are no longer monolingual, monocultural entities,” said Mayra C. Daniel, associate professor and bilingual coordinator in the department of literacy education at Northern Illinois University.

The changing classroom is reflective of the racial seachange of communities across the nation: The number of predominantly white communities in the U.S. is shrinking as the number of no majority and “majority-minority” communities grows, according to findings released last month of the US 2010 Project at Brown University. (A majority-minority community is one in which fewer than 50 percent of residents identify as white and non-Hispanic.)

Since 1980, more than nine-tenths of all cities, suburbs and small towns have become more diverse, according to the US 2010 Project. That includes a drop in the number of communities where 90 percent or more of the populations are white. Those places now make up one-third of communities in the U.S., compared to two-thirds of the total three decades ago, it said.

For the first time, Elgin joined those “majority-minority” cities with the results of the 2010 U.S. Census: of the 108,188 residents in the so-called “City in the Suburbs,” 43.6 percent described themselves as Hispanic and 42.6 percent white, according to census data. Another 6.9 percent are black and 5.2 percent, Asian.

That’s a huge jump for the city’s Hispanic population — up from 34.3 percent in the 2000 Census. And about 13.6 percent of the total population of Elgin described itself as “foreign-born” between 2006 and 2011.

Nearby Carpentersville saw a 20 percent increase in its Hispanic population, making it the only community in the Fox Valley that is more than half Hispanic: 50.1 percent. And 31 percent of its total population came to the village from another country, according to census data.

Head south down the Fox River, and Aurora, the state’s second-largest city, also is one of its most diverse. Hispanics make up 41.3 percent of Aurora, outpacing non-Hispanic whites who account for just 39.9 percent of the city’s population, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Residents who are black account for 10.7 percent, and Asian, 6.7 percent.

Nearly a quarter of the city’s residents were born in other countries. And though Aurora always has made a point of celebrating its diversity — part of the city’s 175th anniversary programming has included spotlights on the legacies of German, Greek, Hispanic and Luxembourgian immigrant communities — the 2010 Census did mark the first time that white residents no longer constituted a racial majority in the city.

Drawn by jobs

What’s drawn new Hispanic residents to the Fox Valley is the same thing that drew German immigrants to Elgin more than a century ago: jobs, according to Richard Greene, an associate professor of geography at Northern Illinois University .

Elgin and Aurora both historically have been strong industrial cities, Greene said. Aerial maps from the 1930s show populations centered in Chicago, but also in cities like Elgin, Aurora and Joliet that were “independent of Chicago, but certainly still influenced by Chicago,” he said.

Today, that population has “coalesced,” spreading from Chicago out into the suburbs, he said. But it still is dense in both Elgin and Aurora, which “still have many jobs in traditional manufacturing and they depend on nearby working-class neighborhoods for their labor supply.”

More recently, Naperville also has become a job center, experiencing a population explosion that “came with high tech industry that is being developed there,” Greene said. And the shift that caused the change in the city’s population is different than in Elgin or Aurora — less dramatic, but nonetheless notable.

Residents identifying themselves as Asian comprised 9.6 percent of the population when the U.S. Census Bureau took stock of the city in 2000. When the poll takers returned a decade later, the proportion had increased by more than half, with those calling themselves Asian representing nearly 15 percent of the city’s 141,853 residents.

Although they comprised less than 4.7 percent of the total population in the newest head count, the residents who were black had grown by more than two-thirds in Naperville, and those identifying themselves as Hispanic had expanded by more than 80 percent, to 7,574 people.

Now Naperville regularly observes such events as Indian Independence Day and festivals commemorating Chinese culture. Last year the city hosted the Illinois Yoga Asana Championships, and cricket — a little-known sport here not long ago — has caught on in a big way. More than a dozen teams comprised the league that late last month capped its season with the 6th annual Naperville Cricket Cup.

With such rapid diversification in schools, NIU’s Daniel said , “There are two things we need to do: One is the teachers need to examine their own culture and learn about the cultures of the students who come into their classrooms.”

Those teachers need to view “the knowledge (students) bring to these schools as positive rather than negative,” she said.

School impact

They need to engage that in the classroom, and not in “superficial” ways, according to the professor. That means not just reading a book with a token Asian character, but incorporating a book about the Yangtze River in China into a class on rivers, she suggested.

And teachers need to take ownership of all students in their school buildings, including English Language Learners, she said.

“We want to wipe out this idea that in order to succeed in the U.S., you have to melt into this pot. We are a diverse nation that is becoming more diverse every day,” she said.

“Instead, we’re a salad bowl where all the little pieces contribute to creating a greater flavor.”

Naperville Community Unit School District 203 adopted a diversity plan as far back as 1996, outlining goals for adding diverse teaching staff, for developing curricula that addresses issues of race and racism and for training teachers in cultural competency.

And West Aurora School District 129 has taken a community-based approach, integrating Aurora-based nonprofit organizations into its schools. The district works with agencies like Family Focus, World Relief and other community leaders and cultural groups to bring resources to children.

Here in Elgin, U46 has embedded equity into its district improvement plan; into its five-year accountability plan, Destination 2015; and into the role of the chief of equity and social justice position, created last year “to help keep that as a focus area,” according to Torres.

Torres, who is in his fifth year as superintendent, said when he first arrived in Elgin, “people in the district would say, ‘Diversity is our strength.’ And I didn’t know if that was a heartfelt belief or a nice thing to say.”

“I think what we’ve done with our dual language program has made that a reality,” he said.

U46 now is a dual language district, meaning all Spanish-speaking ELL students learn new English language skills alongside skills in their first language. Some schools also offer two-way dual language programs, inviting English-speaking students into those classrooms to learn Spanish with their peers.


But diversity also has brought with it challenges — challenges like continued public comments at school board meetings against the six-figure chief of equity and social justice position. (Although outside those comments, usually made by the same district residents, “We don’t hear that many people opposed to it,” Torres said.)

Those challenges also include a statewide shortage of bilingual teachers qualified to teach in the ELL classrooms required by the government. And they include continuing achievement gaps between students who are Hispanic and black and their peers who are white and Asian.

The district also been burdened by almost $16.8 million in legal bills to date in a racial discrimination lawsuit originally filed by nine Hispanic students and their parents in February 2005. That suit claims U46 discriminated against black and Hispanic students in its 2004 school boundary plan by placing them in overcrowded schools, and that it did not offer appropriate help to ELL students or access to gifted and academy programs to students who were black and Hispanic.

That trial has been off and on since March 2011, and closing arguments are expected as written briefs from plaintiffs on Nov. 30 and on Jan. 10 by U46. Oral arguments still may be scheduled after that, according to U46 attorneys.

Getting educated

As someone who has attended one of the district’s least diverse schools and now its most diverse, Erick Aguilar said he appreciates the opportunities diversity has brought the Elgin school district over the past 20 years.

At majority white Bartlett High, students settled into “their little groups,” he said. At Streamwood High, the senior said, “everyone talks to everyone, so I like that.”

And as someone who lived in Mexico until age 8, spent his first few years in the district in an ELL classroom with other Hispanic students, and “didn’t even know what a white person looked like” outside of TV, Erick said, it’s been an education in itself to get to know students with different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

“I came here and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s what they look like,’ and I just saw they were just like me,” he said. “It was really — how do you say that word? — impactful.”

“I really like it.”

Staff writers Jenette Sturges
and Susan Frick Carlman
contributed to this story.

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