Schools responding to Naperville’s growing diversity
By Susan Frick Carlman firstname.lastname@example.org November 24, 2012 4:32PM
Members of the Naperville North step team practice in the school's cafeteria on Wednesday, October 3, 2012. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media
Naperville’s demographic makeup saw notable shifts between 2000 and 2010. Here are the percentages of the city’s population represented by the four most prominent races, with population counts shown in parentheses.
2000: 82.9 (106,386)
2010: 73.0 (103,553)
2000: 3.0 (3,887)
2010: 4.7 (6,667)
2000: 3.2 (4,160)
2010: 5.3 (7,518)
2000: 9.6 (12,380)
2010: 14.9 (21,136)
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
Updated: December 26, 2012 6:02AM
A quick look inside a Naperville classroom these days proves one thing for sure: The city has definitely changed.
Long seen as a prototypical “white bread” suburb, the city over the past few years has taken on a much more global appearance.
Census figures from 2010 make it clear that Chicago’s far western suburbs are far more diverse than they were a decade ago. Naperville has yet to see the changes experienced in nearby cities such as Elgin, where Hispanic kids for the past five years have comprised more than half of the student body in District U46, the state’s second-largest school system. Aurora, too, has experienced a substantial boom in its Latino population.
Naperville has by no means eluded the cultural shift, but it looks different here.
Asian Americans 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 population of African Americans had grown by more than two-thirds in Naperville, and those identifying themselves as Hispanic or Latino 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 — India’s national game and a little-known sport here not long ago — has caught on in a big way. More than a dozen teams comprised the league that recently capped off its sixth season.
North Central College spends a full week every January commemorating the birthday of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. Public school kids, too, routinely take part in an array of events reflecting the city’s diversity, including yearly multicultural talent shows at Naperville Central and Naperville North high schools. Each spring, the three dozen members of the Muslim Students Association at North put on a dinner.
It’s not that Naperville is new to ethnic and religious diversity. Professionals employed at Bell Labs founded the Northern Illinois Chinese Association in 1975; the Islamic Center of Naperville also began its weekend classes during the 1970s. And Naperville North’s Spectrum Club, established to foster awareness and understanding of the school’s broadening cultural base, has been around since 1991.
But as the census data shows, the increase in non-Caucasian residents and people of non-Christian faiths in Naperville and neighboring communities has accelerated in the ensuing years.
“We’re a different DuPage, we’re a changing DuPage,” said Amy Lawless Ayala, lead organizer for DuPage United, an alliance of education, religious and civic groups that advocates for social and economic change. “And we need a different response from our public and private entities to address that.”
White students continue to make up the largest block of students in Naperville School District 203, but the Asian population has at least doubled since 1989 in elementary buildings that include Elmwood, Highlands, Meadow Glens, Mill Street, Ranch View, River Woods and Steeple Run. Indian Prairie District 204 has seen significant increases in Asian head counts as well. At May Watts Elementary School, the segment had tripled to nearly one-third of the student body last year, relative to 1989-90, and Spring Brook had its Asian segment grow to more than 22 percent over the period, a tenfold increase. Brookdale saw a comparable shift.
Elsewhere, other minority groups are catching up. At Longwood Elementary School, black and Hispanic students make up about 49 percent of the population, while about one in three is white. And Thayer Hill Middle School has shifted across the board, with its Caucasian numbers decreasing and Asian, African American and Hispanic student counts all tripling in the past 20 years.
The redistribution of cultural underpinnings has given rise to issues for educators and administrators, among them lingering differences in the standardized test scores of Caucasian and Asian students relative to their Hispanic and African American classmates.
The academic achievement gap is on the table in District 204. The board of education has included shrinking the score discrepancies on its list of goals for this year.
“A big piece of it is taking a look at the systems that are getting in the way,” Superintendent Kathy Birkett said.
Mike Popp, the district’s executive director of secondary education, said administrators have had their eye on the achievement gaps for a long time; it’s more like they’ve been staring it down, he said.
“We agreed: Let’s call them our own and let’s do something about that,” he said.
The challenge is put right on the table when new faculty members come for orientation every fall.
“We let them know very clearly: ‘We chose you (because) you can do something about these gaps that we have,’” Popp said.
Hispanic and African American students also have been part of the conversation about the gap from the outset.
“Kids would go from angry and shocked to a more problem-solving mode,” Popp said.
Part of the challenge, he said, was finding a new way to interpret the scores that come back every year.
“We had blinders on. We’d look at data over the years — I had groups that were (testing) at 90 percent or more,” he said. “But then we looked at the subgroups” — and found less pleasing test results.
In a study published earlier this year by the DuPage County Regional Office of Education, consultants Lourdes Ferrer and Stephen Garlington polled black and Hispanic students, to see why they think the discrepancies in test scores persist. The researchers approached their work realizing that just one in three or four African American or Hispanic students tests at proficiency levels in reading, while two out of three of their Caucasian and Asian classmates score at that target range. In reading, Garlington said, African American and Hispanic students were at proficiency rates of 25 and 33 percent, respectively, while their white and Asian counterparts were at 64 and 66 percent. In math, the scoring discrepancy is even wider.
While the factors that contribute to the gap are varied, the researchers were surprised to see that 55 percent of the input they received from their young subjects echoed the same observations.
“The home expectations, beliefs and values do not match with the schools’ expectations, beliefs and values,” Ferrer said.
Sandra Charles is aware of the cultural dichotomy that sometimes arises between school and home. As chairwoman of the Parent Diversity Advisory Council in Indian Prairie District 204, Charles works to connect the school community with families of minority students, particularly those who need a more assertive voice. Among the council’s activities are meetings based on the “world cafe” model, through which every building has representation in the exchange of ideas.
“I think that’s the challenge,” Charles said. “To find innovative ways to reach those parents, to meet them where they are.”
Diane Cook heads Parent Link, the multicultural organization at Naperville North High School. She lauded the efforts put forth by Principal Kevin Pobst, who has taken a proactive role in addressing diversity since he came to the school three years ago.
“We have an administration now that’s willing, eager — and genuinely eager,” she said. “He’s having an effect on teachers.”
Last year, she said, Pobst arranged a meeting betweenr teachers and parents of minority students.
“It was conversation with no administators there, it was just us talking,” Cook said. “His thought was, ‘I know you guys are thinking a lot of the same things.’ ... Nobody had done that before.”
Access to desirable employment has driven much of the region’s ethnic shift, according to Richard Greene. An associate professor of geography at Northern Illinois University, Greene authored the 2006 paper, “Strong Downtowns and High Amenity Zones as Defining Features of the 21st Century Metropolis: The Case of Chicago.”
Naperville’s international constituency leapt ahead with the high-tech industry that built up around the Interstate 88 corridor over the past decade, Greene said. That influx of new professionals, many of them Asian, brought with it an uptick in the number of Asian students, many of whom are academically high achievers.
Kermit Eby shows a visitor the wall bearing photos of the top grade earners of each class at Naperville North High School, arranged in chronological order, gesturing toward a trend in students of Asian ancestry as the years progress toward today.
After 28 years in the humanities department at North, Eby has seen the student fabric grow significantly more colorful. The boys’ soccer team, which he helps coach, provides a vivid illustration. He still recalls when the roster included just one minority player.
“Now I have a Turkish kid, I have a Mongolian kid, and we always have at least a couple Asian kids,” said Eby, who also has been involved with the school’s multicultural programming for more than two decades.
For about half of that time, North has had individual organizations designed for Indian, Muslim, Asian, African American and other minorities within the school population.
The Board of Education caught the whiff of change in District 203 a while ago. The board adopted a diversity plan in 1996, taking aim at such issues as staffing diversity and curriculum concerns involving race, that currently is being updated. Among the goals in the action plan for this year are administrator training in diversity awareness and heightened efforts to connect with families new to the district, to ensure access to resources that can help them settle in.
Many kids also can use extra help with language skills. About one in four District 204 students lives in a household where something other than English is the norm. According to Popp, some 100 different languages are spoken daily in Indian Prairie students’ homes.
District 203 has about 800 students taking part in the English Language Learning curriculum, most of them in the lower grades.
Catherine Cohoon, who directs the program, said 46 percent of the students in ELL speak Spanish at home. Ten percent come from Mandarin-speaking households, and Lithuanian, Gujarati, Urdu and Korean comprise the remaining major groups of non-English native speakers, in slightly smaller numbers, Cohoon said.
She has seen programming expand considerably in the decade since she came to work in the school system. Dual-language instruction in English and Spanish has been introduced at five elementary schools that have a significant number of Hispanic students, and the high schools now offer content-specific study help when teens encounter learning obstacles in their coursework related to language.
“Along with our student population growing, the services we provide have grown,” Cohoon said.