Thursday, June 25, 2015

Big Changes in Metro Atlanta’s Demographics Are Reflected in Its Schools

By Matt DeVeau, Project Manager

In many ways, Metro Atlanta is emblematic of the fundamental demographic and socioeconomic shifts occurring in the United States. Last month, the Pew Research Center released an analysis showing that 78 counties in 19 states transitioned to “majority-minority between 2000 and 2013. Of the five counties that experienced the biggest proportional declines in non-Hispanic white population, four were in the Atlanta region. And on the topic of rapidly rising suburban poverty, Metro Atlanta is often utilized as the poster child: in the past two years, prominent national and international publications such as The Atlantic, The Economist, and Politico have led trendpieces on the topic with anecdotes from Cobb and Gwinnett counties, the two most populous suburban jurisdictions in the region. These changes have profound implications both locally and nationally, and as a Metro Atlanta resident who thinks about community and economic development for a living, they are never too far from my mind. 

Yet I still found myself surprised at a recent snapshot of radical changes in the racial and ethnic makeup of the region’s school systems. The Atlanta Regional Commission, the metropolitan planning organization for a 10-county footprint inside a larger MSA, posted to its research microblog an analysis showing enrollment changes from 2000 to 2014 at the 15 public school districts within its service area. The post is brief and well worth checking out, but the upshot is this: the types of changes occurring (minority enrollment up overall, white enrollment down in most places) are to be expected, but the degree to which they are occurring is astounding. 

For instance, in a region with just shy of 780,000 students as of October of last year, Hispanic enrollment had grown by more than 100,000 students between 2000 and 2014, with every district posting a gain. Meanwhile, the white population had declined by more than 45,000. A handful of individual districts experienced especially dramatic shifts. As shown in the following graphic, the proportion of white students in Rockdale County declined by 51 percentage points while its share of black students grew by more than 40 percentage points. Proportional declines in white enrollment in excess of 40 percent also occurred in Douglas and Henry counties, while the share of Hispanic students in Gwinnett County increased from 10 percent in 2000 to 28 percent in 2014. (Not coincidentally, Douglas, Gwinnett, Henry, and Rockdale were the four metro counties identified in the aforementioned Pew Research Center analysis.) 

School System Composition Change: Percentage-Point Change in Enrollment, by Race/Ethnicity, 2000-2014 

Source: Atlanta Regional Commission 

White enrollment grew in just five districts, and these generally fall into two distinct categories – urban and quasi-exurban: the school districts for Atlanta and Decatur (a small city approximately five miles east of the region’s center) are urban areas that have experienced rapid gentrification in recent years, while the Cherokee and Forsyth districts cover areas far from the region’s core that had their development booms much later than the suburban counties closest to Atlanta.* To be clear, those four districts on aggregate still have 22,506 fewer white students than the combination of Cobb and Gwinnett. But it’s not an oversimplification to say that in the new millennium, white populations with school-aged children have grown in the region’s center and on portions of its periphery and decreased everywhere else.** And while all districts have diversified in one way or another, the change has been most profound in suburban districts that were mostly white just 15 years ago. 

My guess is that the story is similar in many other parts of the country – that Metro Atlanta is once again a microcosm of the whole. If that’s true, K-12 districts are already faced with a set of evolving challenges and opportunities. Community and economic developers with a vested interest and a strong and thriving talent development pipeline must take note. 

* Located at the region’s northwest edge, Buford is something of a hybrid between small town and far suburb that has historically had its own district apart from Gwinnett County Public Schools. 

** Interestingly, the trend has been titled more toward the core since the onset of the Great Recession. According to the full dataset from the Georgia Department of Education, Cherokee and Forsyth schools added a combined 13,737 white students between 2000 and 2007, compared to just 1,151 in Atlanta and Decatur. But between 2007 and 2014, things have practically been even, with the urban districts adding 4,065 white students compared to 4,608 in Cherokee and Forsyth.