Valley Stream 24 is one of 32 public school districts on Long Island where students of color shifted from being the minority to the majority in the past 20 years. Newsday's Shari Einhorn reports. Credit: Anthony Florio

When visitors step into William L. Buck Elementary School in Valley Stream, one of the first things they see is a circle of paper dolls pasted to the lobby walls.

The hundreds of dolls were handmade by the students at the beginning of the school year to represent themselves. Some wrote on the dolls the names of the countries of their heritage — Colombia, Bangladesh or Jamaica, among others. Many painted the American flag.

The display is meant to reflect the diversity of the student body and to make the schoolchildren see themselves in the building, Valley Stream School District 24 Superintendent Don Sturz said.

Art created by students hangs in the hallways at William L....

Art created by students hangs in the hallways at William L. Buck Elementary School, one of the schools in Valley Stream School District 24. The district has become more diverse over the past two decades, with about 80% of the student body being children of color in 2020-21. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

Sturz's district is among 32 public school districts on Long Island where students of color shifted from being the minority to the majority over the past 20 years, a Newsday analysis of the latest enrollment data found. Fifteen districts, including Brentwood, Westbury and Freeport, had a minority-majority student body in 2000. 

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Over the past 20 years, students of color shifted from being the minority to the majority in 32 public school districts on Long Island, a Newsday analysis found. Overall, the Island's white student population fell to 47.6% in 2020-21.
  • Educators said they are adapting by including changes to lesson plans to better reflect their students’ cultural background; expanding efforts to recruit teachers of color; establishing communications to parents in other languages, and more.
  • More recently, some districts hired consultants or staff to lead diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, despite some pushback.

Overall, the data shows a rapidly changing and more diverse student population on the Island. The Island’s white student population, which was a 51.5% majority in the 2017-18 school year, dipped below half — 48.2% — in 2019-20. That decline continued in 2020-21, to 47.6%, or 197,515 students. 

By comparison, nearly three out of every four students were white in 2000.

“You're looking at a demographic shift in schools because you are looking at a demographic shift in populations,” said Alan Singer, a Hofstra University professor of teaching.

The shift in the Island’s 124 districts mirrors a national trend of K-12 students becoming more diverse, and reflects the overall population change locally. Minority residents in Nassau and Suffolk counties grew from 24% to 40% between 2000 and 2020, an increase driven by growing Hispanic and Asian families, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Jericho High School students walk through the hallways as they...

Jericho High School students walk through the hallways as they change classes on April 13. Credit: Howard Schnapp

“You're getting a demographic shift from the baby boomers to new families moving in,” Singer said. “The second issue in some areas is the influx of Central Americans.”

Hispanic students accounted for nearly one-third of the Island's student body in 2020-21. Asians made up nearly 10% during the same year. The 2020-21 school year also was the first time in which Asian students outnumbered Black students, whose enrollment slowly has been declining in percentage and number, accounting for about 9%, or 39,195, of Island students.

Between 2000 and 2020, the overall student population also has decreased, from 455,938 to 421,254, or 8%. 

As the faces in Island schools change, educators said they are adapting to meet the needs.

Over the years, some teachers said they made changes to lesson plans to better reflect their students’ cultural background. Some districts declared Lunar New Year, Diwali and Eid al-Fitr official school holidays. Many have expanded their bilingual class offerings, grown efforts to recruit teachers of color and started to send communications to parents in English and Spanish — sometimes in a third language.

More recently, some districts hired consultants or staff to lead diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, despite some pushback.

'When we talk about diversity, equity and inclusion, I should see it in the curriculum materials, in the instructional approaches, in the staffing ... ' 

-Lester W. Young Jr., chancellor of the state's Board of Regents

Credit: Newsday/ J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Lester W. Young Jr., chancellor of the state's Board of Regents, called diversity, equity and inclusion concepts “foundational to the entire education enterprise” in a speech he gave in April at SUNY Old Westbury.

“When we talk about diversity, equity and inclusion, I should see it in the curriculum materials, in the instructional approaches, in the staffing that goes on, in the kind of leadership development that goes on, right? [And] in the kinds of opportunities that we provide all students,” he told hundreds in the audience, many of whom were college students studying to become teachers.

Look through new lens

Two decades ago, Valley Stream 24’s white student population stood at nearly 70%. In 2020-21, it was 17%. About 80% of the district’s 1,044 students were children of color: Hispanics, 43%; Blacks, 21%, and Asians, 16%.

Sturz said his district began its diversity, equity and inclusion efforts a few years ago to address the changing demographics in its three K-6 schools.

A DEI committee was formed in December 2020. The school board adopted a DEI policy in April 2021. Two months later, the committee released a report with stated goals to increase staff diversity, expand instructional materials to reflect student backgrounds, and incorporate DEI training in staff professional development.

Artwork from students at William L. Buck Elementary School hangs...

Artwork from students at William L. Buck Elementary School hangs in the hallway. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

One session that Marc Levenson, a district music teacher, attended last October led him to consider how he could add DEI elements to his lessons, he said.

The idea came to him as he was in the session: “Why not do familiar material but in a different language?” Levenson recalled.

Levenson typically started his lessons with a welcome song in English. So the following week, he started teaching his students the same song in Spanish. He later taught the song in Italian, French and, a few weeks ago, Japanese.

“The [students’] reaction was: 'So cool,'” Levenson said. “They were really excited about [singing in] another language.”

Sturz said the song was an example of districtwide efforts to examine practices through the DEI lens.

'Everything we do we look at from a diversity, equity and inclusion perspective.'

-Don Sturz, Valley Stream School District 24 superintendent, pictured with Johanne Gaddy, principal of William L. Buck Elementary School

Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

“Whether it be our hiring practices, how we distribute communications to parents, the events that we create, the activities that we offer, the curriculum we choose, everything we do we look at from a diversity, equity and inclusion perspective,” the superintendent said.

Last July, the district hired its first female Black principal, Johanne Gaddy, at William L. Buck. Within the last school year, Sturz said, five of the 11 open positions for teachers and administrators were filled by candidates of color.

Eighty-seven of the district’s 97 teachers are white. Of the 10 teachers of color, five are Hispanic, three are Asian and two are Native American, according to the superintendent.

Expanded efforts

Districts across the Island have made similar efforts on DEI, staffing and building what educators call a more inclusive school environment.

In Freeport, a 21-week Equity Challenge began April 4. Participants receive an email each week with videos and articles to further their knowledge on DEI.

Earlier this year, the Westbury school board appointed a director of diversity, equity, inclusion and special projects and added Muslim holidays Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha to the district's 2022-23 school calendar.

“We recognize that we have a growing population of students and family who celebrate Eid,” Superintendent Tahira A. DuPree Chase said at the Feb. 15 board meeting.

“We wanted to make sure that we were inclusive in our calendar,” she said. “We want to be able to demonstrate that we walk the talk and it's not just gibberish.”

In Riverhead, the district’s DEI committee is scheduled to present a plan next month.

Claudette Garley-Rottkamp teaches English to multilingual learners at Riverhead High School...

Claudette Garley-Rottkamp teaches English to multilingual learners at Riverhead High School on April 26. Credit: James Carbone

Riverhead is one of the districts where white students used to be the majority. The district saw its Hispanic students increase from 347 to 3,219, or 828%, from 2000 to 2020, the largest percentage increase for districts with more than 3,200 students.

Of its 5,570 students, one out of three is learning English as a new language, Superintendent Augustine Tornatore said.

'We certainly have been talking more about supporting our [multilingual learners] population.'

- Augustine Tornatore, Riverhead school district superintendent

Credit: Randee Daddona

“We certainly have been talking more about supporting our [multilingual learners] population,” Tornatore said. “I don't think that's a conversation that's going to be going away.”

Tornatore said he wants to incrementally expand bilingual coursework in the district’s elementary schools. He also wants to increase class offerings in English, algebra and geometry on the secondary level.

That means the district needs more bilingual teachers. “What we're doing is, as people are retiring, we're looking to hire bilingual teachers whenever we can,” Tornatore said.

In Brentwood, the high school's bilingual department has tripled in size, growing from one of the smallest departments in the early 2000s to becoming one of its largest, Superintendent Richard Loeschner said.

“When you do have monolingual speakers coming from different parts of the world, you obviously have to adjust your teaching staff, your professional staff,” Loeschner said. “That's what we've done.”

Critique on two sides

Despite what some districts touted as improvements, advocates said their efforts are not on pace with changing needs and are limited to cultural activities instead of meaningful changes in staff recruitment and curriculum.

“I commend them for the efforts they have made,” said Osbourne Traill Jr., a parent who unsuccessfully ran for the Valley Stream 24 school board last year. “It's not happening fast enough.”

William L. Buck Elementary School is one of the most...

William L. Buck Elementary School is one of the most diverse schools in Valley Stream School District 24. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

Traill said his five children, who attended Robert W. Carbonaro elementary, never had a Black teacher when they were there. His youngest is now a senior at Valley Stream South High School.

“The faculty has not changed to align with the changing demographics,” said Traill, who is Black. “Something is wrong when in 20 years you don't see a teacher that looks like you" in the elementary school. 

Sturz said the district continues to work on increasing teacher diversity, but the process takes time as the district in a typical year has only a few positions open.

Minerva Perez, executive director of OLA of Eastern Long Island, which works with school districts on the East End, said more is needed to address students’ academic and other needs.

“This isn't a sudden influx. This is 30 years [of] gradual demographic change, and we have not been keeping pace,” she said. “What we find oftentimes is that it feels like a challenge, it feels like a problem when it should be feeling like an opportunity.”

Meanwhile, some have pushed back against DEI, calling it biased teaching that creates division.

In Smithtown, Jennifer Bradshaw, the district's assistant superintendent for instruction and administration who led the equity team, left her job last summer following criticism over the equity work that she helped guide.

The 8,116-student district on the North Shore in Suffolk County has a 79% white student body, a decrease from 95% two decades ago.

Earlier this year, Smithtown established a new DEI committee called “Success for ALL.”

“Our work will be guided by a dispassionate, apolitical analysis as to whether or not our students are reaching the goals we have set for them,” Superintendent Mark Secaur said in a virtual presentation in January. “There will be no political agenda to advantage or disadvantage a particular group.”

In an email sent through a spokeswoman Thursday, Secaur wrote, “the formation of this committee marks a change in approach when compared to the previous team.” He said the committee will meet soon to map out the work ahead.

Kevin Smith, co-founder of Long Island Loud Majority, said DEI work is intrinsically linked to race and highlights differences rather than what students share in common.

“There's no reason that race has to be in the forefront of things because all you do when that happens is you artificially separate students based on race,” he said. “There is no reason why first-graders should be focused on what makes them different. That's a recipe for disaster.”

Loud Majority has been identified as an antigovernment organization by the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that tracks racism, xenophobia and far right militias in the United States.

Tensions rise

Educators said tensions have risen as a result of DEI efforts.

'Change concerns people. Historically, we look like this. And now our district is changing and, ‘What does that mean for my kid and my family?''

Henry Grishman, Jericho school district superintendent 

Credit: Johnny Milano

“Change concerns people,” said Henry Grishman, superintendent of Jericho schools. “Historically, we look like this. And now our district is changing and, ‘What does that mean for my kid and my family?’ ” 

Of Island districts, Jericho has seen the biggest drop percentagewise in white student population since 2000. What rose was its Asian student group, which grew fivefold to 2,054. Many are of Chinese, Indian or Korean descent.

Seeing the changing student makeup in the early 2000s, Grishman said the district established committees to better understand it.

Daborah Lee, who in 2015 became the first Asian American elected to the Jericho school board, was invited to be involved.

“When I first started, it's a lot of the language barrier and cultural differences,” Lee said. Parents, including her at first, had questions about things such as what to wear to a bar mitzvah.

Grishman said the district invited Asian parents and others to faculty meetings to talk to teachers about cultural differences.

“Initially, change brings some hesitation,” Grishman said. “However, I think we countered that with all of the benefits of our district becoming more multicultural and how that benefited the overall educational program.”

Suzanne Valenza, an English teacher at Jericho High School, said she began assigning reading materials from Asian authors around 2006 after seeing her classroom change.

“I would move away from some of the canon of the old white men in American and British literature,” she said. “I started including titles written by authors who were Korean and Chinese.”

Valenza has continued that practice with her creative writing classes that include food memoirs. The required reading list in her class includes “Eating the Hyphen,” an essay by Lily Wong, and excerpts from “Climbing the Mango Trees” by Madhur Jaffrey.

“If you're going to talk about food and have people write about food in their lives, it would be irresponsible of me to do anything but to make sure that I reflect [everybody’s culture] in the room,” she said.

With Michael R. Ebert

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