One of Maryland's southern counties is set to become majority black school district this year. Five years ago, two our of every three students in the 20,000 student district were white. This year, school officials believe that at least half of the students in the now 27,000 student county will be black, reflecting a massive demographic change and challenge for the county's public schools.
As the student body has diversified rapidly, academic performance in Charles has remained steady and, by some measures, improved. This reflects in part the growth in Charles, which is being fueled by relatively affluent and well-educated African Americans moving in from neighboring Prince George's to find less expensive housing and better schools.While a majority of students are black, the overwhelming majority of the county's teacher and school administrators are white, although two members of the seven member elected school board, including the Board's President are black.
It also reflects efforts by Charles school officials to address factors that have pulled down black achievement in some other middle-class communities, such as lower expectations from educators and less involvement from parents.
Only the Atlanta Suburbs have a faster growing black population than Charles County, according to a Post analysis of Census data. The historical parallels are hard to ignore. Some 35 years ago, Prince George's County underwent a similar transformation, from a majority white county to a majority black county. Today, Prince George's County schools routinely rank at or near the bottom of the state's education measurements. Charles County officials are worried that the same thing might happen in their school district as well.
Right now, Charles County is defying the research that says diversity in student populations generally leads to a degradation of school performance. But one has to wonder about Prince George's County 35 years ago. Did the influx of black families from the Washington DC automatically result in lower school performance, and if not, what is the lag time.
Anirban Basu, an economist who studies demographic trends, said that some research has shown that increased diversity has led to drops in academic performance but that Charles has had a different experience.Basu believes socio-economic status plays a bigger role as a predictor, and that could be right. However, I believe that as children get older, the parental expectations and the peer associations and pressure will play a larger role than the affluence or not of the parents.
"It's a function of socioeconomic status. It's true that many of the newcomers are African Americans," said Basu, who worked with Baltimore's public schools. "But it's also true that many of the newcomers enjoy lofty, affluent incomes. These are young people that come from families of means. I think that is a greater predictor of test scores and academic achievement than is race."
Charles County offers an excellent opportunity for education theorists to have a real laboratory to watch--is it race, is it socio-economic status, is it school policies, or is it something else that drives success in school or failure in schools. As Charles County receives a larger percentage of black families, will the schools maintain or improve on their successes or will they follow a course like Prince George's County has experienced in teh past 35 years, one of steady decline in school performance county wide.