Six years ago, for the first time, more Hispanic students attended K-12 public schools in Wichita, Kan. than students of any other race. That year, 34 percent of Wichita students were Hispanic, 33 percent Caucasian, and 19 percent Black. This semester, Hispanic students continue to lead with 37 percent of enrollment, despite census estimates that put Wichita’s overall Hispanic population at about 17 percent in 2021. Caucasian students make up 29.7 percent of the student body, while Black students make up 19.5 percent.
Miguel Sabas-Perez recalls knowing little to no English when he entered US public schools. When he was in fourth grade, he immigrated to the United States with his family.
His wife Mallela Sabas is also an immigrant. In a video for Wichita Public Schools, she said she knew two words, “teacher” and “ice cream,” when she started school. Eleven years ago, Sabas began teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) in the Wichita School District. Sabas-Perez was in business until about four years ago, when he also began serving as a district high school counselor. “I decided to apply … because I think that’s where I can make the most difference right now,” he said, citing the large population of Hispanic families at his school.
Other districts across the country are also seeing growth in their Hispanic populations. The National Center for Education Statistics projects that Hispanic students will make up 29.7 percent of public K-12 students by 2030, up from 13.5 percent in 1995. Since 2000, the percentage has increased by a fraction of a percent annually .
The Hispanic population in the United States is younger, with nearly a third of Hispanic Americans being under the age of 18. A higher birth rate among Hispanic families contributes much of this growth, although that number has been declining in recent years.
Roxanne Garza is Senior Policy Advisor at the Education Policy Project at UnidosUS, a Latin American civil rights and advocacy organization. She said the increased number of Hispanic students creates two K-12 educational challenges: representation among teachers and support for English learners.
Hispanic students make up 28 percent of the national student population, but only 9 percent of K-12 teachers are Hispanic. “As our classrooms become more diverse and Latino, we want to make sure there’s good representation in the teachers and … also in the leadership team,” Garza said.
As of 2019, one-tenth of all public K-12 students are studying English. A few years earlier, at least 75 percent of students studying the English language were Hispanic. Garza said UnidosUS saw a greater need for academic support for these students. In March, the US Department of Education identified bilingual education as a particular concern in light of teacher shortages. Garza said more teachers need to be trained on how to work with students learning English: “It’s very likely that English learners are part of classrooms across the country that may have a teacher trained in that area. “
Recently released National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results show particularly worrying declines among Hispanic students in fourth-grade math and reading and eighth-grade math. Garza pointed to internet and device access challenges during distance learning and communication barriers between teachers teaching remotely and parents trying to help their children complete their work. “Coupled with all these different obstacles, it’s not really a huge surprise what we’re seeing in terms of the data coming out,” she said.
Students who are struggling in school now may face greater challenges as they prepare for post-secondary education. “We also know that the majority of Latino students are the first in their families to go to college,” Garza said. Hispanic college enrollment has skyrocketed since 2000 but declined slightly during the pandemic. Research in 2021 showed that 32 percent of 18- to 24-year-old Hispanic adults are in post-secondary education.
According to 2017-18 statistics, only about 2 percent of teachers are Hispanic males. As a high school counselor, Miguel Sabas-Perez sees the importance of his role. His former co-workers questioned why he would quit his job to teach. “I will help kids get into college,” he said.