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90 percent Hispanic? No hay problema

The Margarita Muñiz Academy in Jamaica Plain has only been around four years, but it already looks an awful lot like the future of education in this country. Eleventh-graders listen to lectures about Che Guevara in Spanish. Then they learn about Malcolm X in English. Their math teacher can explain pre-calculus in either tongue. Muñiz, one of only two bilingual high schools in the city, expects every student to master both languages.

"Language is an asset," said headmaster Dania Vázquez. "Not a deficiency."

With rising test scores and more than 400 students applying each year for 80 seats, Muñiz is obviously doing something right.

But there's one uncomfortable statistic about this innovative public school: 90 percent of the students here are Hispanic.

Vázquez says she'd like to see a more diverse student body in the future. "Our students don't want to segregate themselves," she said.

But Muñiz is just one of a growing number of schools in Boston with such an ethnically lopsided student body. Four decades after a federal judge desegregated Boston Public Schools, the Donald McKay School in East Boston, for instance, is 90 percent Hispanic. The Curtis Guild in East Boston is 84 percent.


That's partly a function of demographics. Forty-one percent of all public school students in Boston are Hispanic. The larger a minority group grows, the more difficult integration becomes. In California, where 55 percent of public school students are Hispanic, 8 percent attend majority-white schools. In Boston, 2 percent do.

That has led some to decry the "re-segregation" in America's schools.

Yet history suggests that Hispanics don't dream of integration the same way that blacks do. In the 1960s and '70s, as black families fought to integrate schools, Hispanic activists clamored for the opposite. They wanted their kids clustered in bilingual education programs that could celebrate their heritage, ease them into English, and counter the high drop-out rate.

In 1971, they won a huge victory: Massachusetts became the first state in the country to mandate that students be taught in their native tongue.

Those new bilingual classes were just gearing up when Judge Arthur Garrity ordered Boston to desegregate schools in 1974. At first, his ruling was a setback for Hispanics, who were reassigned away from bilingual classrooms to random schools that weren't equipped to teach them.


But Hispanic parents petitioned for relief from the court, and Garrity agreed with them. For years, his oversight of the school system gave Hispanic activists the upper hand in negotiations over hiring more Spanish-speaking teachers. Thanks to Garrity — and the fear of another big lawsuit — the Boston School Committee grudgingly agreed to things they would never have entertained before.

But bilingual programs were costly, especially as more students arrived, speaking Mandarin, Cape Verdean Creole, and Khmer.

"It's about money," said Alan Rom, the lawyer who negotiated on behalf of Hispanic parents.

But critics also fretted that bilingual education was "un-American."

In 2002, a referendum requiring that public school students be taught in English won in a landslide. Although the law made an exception for two-way bilingual schools like Muñiz, other kinds of programs must get waivers from the state.

That's a shame. As the percentage of Hispanics grows from 17 percent to 30 percent nationwide in 2050, the demand for bilingual education is going to grow. We're also going to have to rethink our ideas about segregation and civil rights: How will we protect the civil rights of minorities when everybody is a minority? What will "integration" mean when there is no more mainstream?

This piece is part of a series of columns about Boston — four decades after busing — supported by the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation. Farah Stockman can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.