As Hispanics surpass white Californians in population next year, the state becomes a potential model for the rest of the country, which is going through a slower but similar demographic shift.
But when it comes to how California is educating students of color, many say the state serves as a model of what not to do.
In California, 52 percent of the state's 6 million school children are Hispanic, just 26 percent are white. And Hispanic students in general are getting worse educations than their white peers. Their class sizes are larger, course offerings are fewer and funding is lower.
The consequence is obvious: lower achievement.
Just 33 percent of Hispanic students are proficient in reading in third grade, compared with 64 percent of white students. By high school, one in four Hispanic 10th graders in California cannot pass the high school math exit exam, compared with 1 out of 10 white students.
And while overall test scores across the state have gone up in the past decade, the achievement gap hasn't changed.
“The expectations at my school were just so low, and that's so shortsighted,” said Alvaro Zamora, 17, who excelled despite the educational challenges in the Pajaro Valley, a farming region near the Central Coast where his classmates were almost entirely Mexican immigrants or children of immigrants.
“Most economies are driven by innovation. If you don't have a math and science literate population you won't have the majority of the population innovating,” he said.
Nationally, an achievement gap is also showing up as Latino enrollment has soared from one out of 20 U.S. students in 1970 to nearly one out of four, and white students account for just 52 percent of U.S. first graders.
“We're falling behind,” said Antioch University Los Angeles provost Luis Pedraja. “Ultimately we will face a crisis where a majority of the U.S. population will be economically disadvantaged, which will reduce their spending power and contribution to taxes and Social Security, impacting all segments of society and our country's economic health.”
There are many factors contributing to California's educational divide; many Hispanic students are children of Mexican immigrants who did not complete high school and who cannot provide the academic and social support and advocacy of their white counterparts. The state also has a tax system that allows communities to increase local taxes for their schools — thus wealthier communities have wealthier schools.
Jackie Medina, a 4th and 5th grade teacher who has been teaching for nine years in Watsonville, said test scores may also not reflect actual achievement if they're requiring native Spanish speakers to test in English. A local leader in the California Association of Bilingual Educators, she teaches about topics like immigration in her classroom so her students get relevant curriculum that relates to them, in both English and Spanish.
“All educators want high achievement of all of our students,” she said. “We need to have a paradigm shift and look at how we're educating this large population, incorporating their native language.”
Dulce Sixtos, 16, said her father, a fieldworker, and her mother, who works in the cut flower industry, come to their Watsonville home exhausted from low-paying jobs and tell her: “I don't want you looking like me.”
She wants to get an education and return to improve her community, but she worries that her high marks in school won't spell college success.
“Right now I feel people have given up on us, they say, 'Oh, they don't need an education to work in the fields,'” she said. “So I go to school thinking I'm going to get a great education, but I'm worried I'm going to go to college and see that I'm at a great disadvantage to the white students.”
Gov. Jerry Brown hopes to flip what he calls “a funding system that is overly complex, bureaucratically driven and deeply inequitable” with a budget change phased in over several years that will funnel more money to low income and non-English students.
California also has a law that allows parents to vote to take over a failing school; on July 29, Desert Trails Preparatory Academy in Adelanto reopened as the first public school in the nation to be taken over by parents under one of these laws.
Zamora, the son of Mexican immigrants, said he took the hardest courses offered in Pajaro, but succeeded by learning on his own and “with a group of nerd friends.”
“I'd get home and do my homework in about a minute,” he said. “In a whole year of high school we were assigned one book and two essays. It's not the type of education that prepares you for college or jobs.”
All too often, black and Latino students are disproportionally taught easier material than white or Asian kids, said Alan A. Aja, who teaches Latino studies at Brooklyn College.
“No one wants to see themselves as racist,” Aja said, “but educators have this ingrained belief that black and Latino kids are cognitively inferior and they lower expectations. It's racialized tracking. So if they assume these kids are going to underachieve, if they assume they don't have capacity to tackle hard topics, well, no wonder there's an achievement gap.”
At Zamora's high school, just 6 percent of students scored proficient or advanced on standardized math tests, compared with 51 percent statewide. He remembers one math teacher offering extra credit for bringing in calculator batteries.
Zamora, who scored top marks on college entrance exams, was the first in his family to go to college. He just finished his first semester at Brown University where he's studying astrophysics.