Bixhorn: Long Island's senior class lives in a different world

The public school senior class of 2014 is The public school senior class of 2014 is finishing its education in schools that are more diverse than when it started kindergarten in the 2001. At the same time, Long Island communities are far less wealthy than they were. Photo Credit: iStock

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The Long Island high school Class of 2014 has returned to school. For the majority, graduation will be the culmination of a 13-year public school experience that began in kindergarten classrooms in September 2001. While the school buildings that these students attend look very much the same as when they started, the characteristics and demographics of the students in those buildings have changed significantly.

Long Island schools are far more diverse than in the 2001-02 school year. At the same time, our communities are far less wealthy than they were. In 2001-02, the average income of Long Islanders was 40 percent greater than the state average. The difference has now dropped to just 13 percent, according to a New York State Council of School Superintendents analysis of State Education Department data. The total number of students in Long Island public schools has fallen by about 14,000 in that period to around 441,000. But the number of children living in poverty increased by 6,000 to 42,000 students, and now represents nearly 10 percent of the region's enrollment.

We know that the socioeconomic status of students is a major indicator of educational need. So the data indicate we have a student population requiring a far more intense level of service than just a few years ago.

Aside from the economic changes, there have been shifts in race and ethnicity. Both counties saw their combined proportion of white and African-American students drop from more than 80 percent to around 70 percent over the period. In Suffolk County, there has been a dramatic rise in the proportion of Latino students, from 12 percent in 2001 to 21 percent in 2012. In Nassau County, the Latino population grew from 12 percent to 18 percent. In Nassau, currently 11 percent of the students are Asian-American, compared with 4 percent in Suffolk.

The impact of these changes has been widespread. They are accompanied by an increase in the number of students in our schools who first learned to speak a language other than English -- known as "English language learners." That population stands at nearly 29,000 -- 6.5 percent of the region's enrollment. In 2001, it was 4.3 percent. These students come to school speaking more than 70 different languages, with 80 percent speaking Spanish.

So, what has this meant for our schools?

Clearly, we are serving a different population today than just a few years ago. We have more students who need more specialized services and support.

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One measure of this can be seen in the results of the recently released state assessments. Just 3.2 percent of English language learners and 19 percent of the economically disadvantaged scored at or above proficiency on the English Language Arts assessments, compared with 31 percent for all students. As the Common Core curriculum is implemented and standards are raised, the need to provide support for all students will grow, but this is especially true for those in high-needs groups.

And of course, schools don't just deal with students. We work with parents and those who care for students. All of this requires resources that have become increasingly scarce. Schools need the ability to hire more specialized staff and to engage the appropriate contractors to serve these students and their families.

Schools have also had to address issues around cultural competence -- the ability of students to accept and interact with others who are different from themselves. Addressing the issues around diversity -- through both curriculum and staffing -- is one key to maintaining a healthy environment in which educational services can be delivered. But again, this requires precious time and resources.

The issues associated with changing demographics will continue to grow. It won't be long before students from the Class of 2014 become Long Island's leaders. Hopefully, what they've experienced during these transformative years will give them the insight they need to deal with the challenges of ongoing change.

Gary D. Bixhorn is chief operating officer of Eastern Suffolk BOCES and the legislative chairman of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association.

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