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Arizona’s Changing Demographics and the Academic Divide

Author: Cathryn Creno

Present-day demographers discuss Arizona’s current Latino population boom as if the trend were something new, but many Latinos know that their ancestors have played a strong role in Arizona history since the 16th Century.

Spanish explorers such as Fray Marcos de Niza and Francisco Vazquez de Coronado were among the first Europeans to explore and create settlements in Arizona for “gold, glory and God.” The territory became part of Mexico after its independence from Spain in 1821.

Mexico released its claim on southern Arizona after the Mexican-American War of 1847 and the Gadsden Purchase of 1853. 

The territory was sparsely populated – Arizona had about 40,000 residents in 1880 and about 88,000 a decade later. Miners, ranchers and agricultural workers were in high demand as two railroad lines arrived in the Arizona territory and expanded the opportunity for commerce. Employers were eager to find willing workers. 

In 1912, Arizona became a state. 

By 1950, Arizona’s population had grown to about 750,000. That number included a growing number of White families who were drawn by post-war technology jobs at places like Motorola – and air conditioned housing.

By the 1980s, Arizona had a population of 2.7 million, 16 percent of whom were Latino. 

A March 2001 headline in USA Today announced that Arizona’s Latino population grew by 88 percent in the 1990s. Much of that growth came from migration. Young adults crossed the border seeking jobs in construction and the service sector after the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, cut into the profitability of Mexican agriculture. Arizona appealed to the migrants because of California and Texas border blockades.

By 2008, Arizona’s population had grown to 6.5 million with 30 percent being Latino. Some Latinos left Arizona after the Legislature in 2010 passed SB 1070, a controversial law that required police to check immigration status. But the estimated exodus is in the tens of thousands – not hundreds of thousands. 

By 2016, close to 2.1 million of Arizona’s 6.7 million residents identified themselves as Latinos. The Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce predicts that by 2030, Latinos will be the majority population in the state.

Today, Latinos already are the majority population in Arizona’s public schools. 

According to Paul Luna, Helios Education Foundation’s President and CEO, the changing demographics, when presented with the data on overall shifts in population makeup and the age of the Latino population, should make it evident that the success of Latino students is critical to the success of Arizona’s schools and future workforce.

“While data on future economic opportunities for Arizona are positive, the state’s ability to prepare its students for college and career is troubling,” Luna added. “Across the state’s public education continuum, Arizona falls below national averages in proficiency or readiness in reading and mathematics in elementary, middle, and high school. When disaggregated, the data show large gaps in achievement for Latino students when compared to their White counterparts.”  

Luna says that while there are a number of contextual factors that place Latinos at a disadvantage in Arizona (e.g., higher levels of poverty or a large percentage of English as a second language students), one of the biggest is a lack of access to high-quality preschool education.

Figure 1 (below) shows the percentage distribution of Arizona K-12 public schools by ethnicity for 2014 (the most recent released data on October attendance rates is from the Arizona Department of Education). Additionally, figure 1 shows that Latinos make up the largest proportion of students in Arizona public schools (45 percent), followed by Whites (40 percent), and American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Blacks at five percent, respectively (Arizona Department of Education 2014). Figure 2 (below) breaks down enrollment in public school by ethnicity and school type. 

In his 2015 presentation “Arizona’s Economic Imperative: The Impact of Latino Student Success,” Arizona State University President Dr. Michael Crow suggests that the majority of Arizona Latinos may live in poverty “without game changing progress in educational achievement.” Dr. Crow discussed Arizona’s four-year high school graduation rate and Arizona’s educational attainment rate for the population by age 25 and older by major race/ethnics groups. Latinos fall behind in these categories. 

With Arizona’s changing demographics and with the largest population of students in the state’s public schools being Latino, Helios Education Foundation is focused on closing the Latino student achievement gap, improving academic preparedness and fostering college-going and completing cultures in high poverty, Latino communities. The Foundation’s Arizona-based investments are working to align high-quality, early learning for Latino youth with rigorous K-12 educational programs and pathways to achieving a postsecondary education. 

Retrieved from Arizona State University - Office of the President.

To watch Dr. Crow’s full presentation, click here.

“We care about all students in Arizona and Florida, and one of our fundamental beliefs is that every student, regardless of zip code, deserves a high quality education,” said Helios Education Foundation’s Founding Chairman Vince Roig. “We are working to ensure that every student in Arizona achieves a postsecondary education, but we are also concerned about the increasing Latino student achievement gap at a time when Latino students make up a majority of the students in our K-12 public schools. We have to work collectively to ensure that all students, but especially Latino students, are prepared to succeed in the jobs of tomorrow.” 

As part of its focus on investing across the education continuum, from the early grades through postsecondary education, Helios has launched the Arizona Latino Student Success initiative which is tackling this issue through the four-pronged approach of strategic investing, building and reforming systems, public and political will building and collaborating and convening. The Foundation is partnering with a number of academic institutions, school districts, nonprofit organizations and others to close the Latino student achievement gap in Arizona. 

“The negative consequences of the Latino student achievement gap will affect all Arizonans, regardless of race, ethnicity or age. Closing the Latino student achievement gap and improving college attainment rates among Latino students is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty, unleashing Arizona’s greatest talent potential and ensuring the state is positioned to compete and thrive in a knowledge-based global economy,”  Roig said. 

You can find more information about Helios’ Arizona Latino Student Success initiative online by clicking here

Click to read Part Two and Part Three of the Latino Student Success series. 

Category: College and Career Readiness, Education Excellence, Education Issues, Postsecondary Success

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