This is the sixth installment in an editorial series called The Changing Face of Minnesota. This year, the ECM Publishers Editorial Board is examining demographic changes and disparities in Minnesota that center around race, education, wealth, age, region and employment.

In some of the most racially diverse districts in the state, the families attending their schools speak nearly 90 different languages. This is a stunning illustration of the cultural makeup of our schools, particularly in the suburban metro.

We have a tremendous responsibility to make sure that we provide equitable academic opportunities for all students.

The rising tide of multiculturalism – nearly a third of Minnesota’s K-12 students are people of color – brings challenges and opportunities for policymakers, teachers and students.

How do we make sure we connect and meet the needs of all, with the end goal of graduating students with academic and cultural competency?

Despite intensive efforts, gaps still exist for Minnesota’s racially diverse students.

Many initiatives are being implemented to help close those gaps, from the introduction of all-day, every-day kindergarten to World’s Best Workforce, which sets important benchmarks throughout a child’s educational lifetime, from being ready for school through high school graduation and college or career readiness.

According to the Minnesota Department of Education, students of color are the fastest growing segment of the state’s future workforce but they have the state’s lowest graduation rates. Minnesota has one of the worst black-white achievement gaps in the country, the MDE reports.

The state’s achievement gap has been stubborn – mostly stagnant for the last five years despite an ambitious call to reduce it 50 percent by 2017. The statewide numbers are troubling.

Last school year, only 33 percent of black students were proficient in reading, and just 28 percent in math.

This compares to proficiency ratings of 69 percent in reading and 68 percent in math for white kids.

American Indian and Hispanic/Latino kids are lagging far behind as well.

Those proficiency ratings were 35 percent in reading and 30 percent in math for American Indian students. Hispanic and Latino learners fared only slightly better at 39 percent in reading and 35 percent in math.

MDE reports that in 2016, 82.2 percent of Minnesota’s high school students graduated on time (in four years). This is the highest percentage in the past decade.

However, only 53 percent of American Indian students, 65 percent of black students, and 65 percent of Hispanic students graduated on time, compared to 84 percent of Asian students and 87 percent of white students.

Generation Next is an organization dedicated to closing those gaps, specifically in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

According to its 2016 report card, students are not receiving the necessary supports – especially students of color.

According to data that indicates whether ninth-grade students are on-track as defined by core course failures and overall credits, only 40 percent of black students in Minneapolis are on track, compared to 84 percent of their white peers. Those numbers are also startling low for American Indian students (26 percent) and Hispanic students (45 percent).

School districts work hard to integrate people into the system, who are coming from all over the world.

In the Anoka-Hennepin School District, one of the state’s largest districts, a language other than English is spoken in about 6,000 of the homes, or 15 percent. Spanish and Hmong are the leading languages, about two-thirds of the total. Vietnamese, Russian and Arabic round out the top five.

But diversity in our classrooms needs attention beyond the annual data from test scores. Let’s remember the opportunities that come with diverse classrooms.

According to the National Coalition on School Diversity, the benefits for non-minority students in racially diverse schools are plenty.

Having different racial and ethnic backgrounds in a classroom is closely connected to more dialogue and debate, the coalition reports. There is less likelihood of stereotyping and reduced racial prejudice.

Racially integrated classrooms help students understand different points of view and prepare them for a racially diverse workplace.

According to reporting by the Washington Post, U.S. employers spend roughly $200 million to $300 million each year on diversity training because their employees are not prepared to work with people who come from different racial, economic or cultural backgrounds. Classrooms are the perfect place to lay that foundation.

It is also important to make sure the teachers and policymakers are representative of their student populations.

In Minnesota, 32 percent of students enrolled are people of color, but only 4 percent of teachers are.

While discussion and recruitment efforts have improved in many districts and some small gains are being made, we are still woefully deficient. And there are far too few people of color on school boards and in leadership roles.

Let’s rise to the challenges and embrace the benefits that come with increasing diversity in our classrooms.

— An opinion of the ECM Editorial Board

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