Our self-image is that of a thriving community with a strong tourism-based economy, supported by real estate and the service sector. That's all true, but perhaps we don't really know who our students are -- the 20,000 young people attending public schools in Beaufort County.
We probably assume that the majority of our students are very much like us: White, living with financial security, getting support at home, doing well in school and aspiring to go to college.
This might have been accurate in the past, but today's students are different, based on current data from the state Department of Education and the Beaufort County School District.
For instance, Hilton Head Island has three elementary schools (pre-kindergarten to fifth grade) totaling 2,091 students. Only 43 percent of these students are white -- making them a minority. Of the 1,617 students in grades one through five on Hilton Head, more than 50 percent are eligible for free and reduced meals (both breakfast and lunch).
The majority of Hilton Head and Bluffton students in all grades (pre-kindergarten through 12th grade) are what we once called minorities. Black and Hispanic students are now the new majority, and white students have become the new minority.
White students make up only 44 percent of the total in the Beaufort County School District.
The demographic profile of Hilton Head and Bluffton reflects a long-term national trend.
According to the 2010 census, whites are now a minority among all 3-year-olds in the U.S. Therefore, this new majority will make up a large segment of the future workforce of our country.
America's global economic competitiveness will depend upon the educational attainment of this new majority. The U.S. faces an economic imperative to educate all students.
A major shortcoming of U.S. public education is that the system does not adequately consider the consequences of poverty. We acknowledge the achievement gap between students, but we just assume that poor students have less ability. We fail to understand that poor students have fewer opportunities. Children of professional families have 8 million more words directed at them per year from ages 1 to 3 than do children from poor families. Vocabulary is a leading indicator of future school success.
The best predictor of a financially stable life -- i.e., being able to get a good job, provide for a family, pay taxes, and otherwise contribute to society -- is education. And the best predictor of how well a child will learn is income. That's not to say that poor kids can't learn, but the deck is often stacked against them. It's more difficult to educate children who are poor.
Locally, many black and Hispanic students are poor and arrive at school burdened with the deficits of poverty. These deficits show up in the lower test scores of the new majority.
A large percentage of Hilton Head and Bluffton black and Hispanic students underperform compared to their demographic peers in both the Beaufort County School District and South Carolina.
Hilton Head's 2011 PASS scores for grades three to eight show that more than 40 percent of the new majority failed both reading and math. Likewise in Bluffton, in 2011, about 40 percent failed both reading and math.
These students are less likely to attend college because they are likely to drop out before they graduate from high school. Only half of local black and Hispanic students graduated on time in 2011 from Hilton Head and Bluffton high schools. Those who did not graduate in 2011 might hope to become part of our local workforce, but the question remains -- will local employers be willing to hire them at an income level that will enable them to provide for a family, send their children to college, and save for retirement?
The Neighborhood Outreach Connection recognizes that the new majority does not lack ability, but rather lacks opportunity and proper support. Poor children need more schooling time and learning opportunities at home and in their neighborhoods. But the parents of poor children lack time, knowledge, and skills to help their children.
While our public schools reach out to the parents of the new majority by inviting them to school, the schools cannot be physically present in the many neighborhoods of its poor students -- neighborhoods such as the Sandalwood Terrace, The Oaks and Hilton Head Gardens apartments, Stoney, Squire Pope, Wild Horse, Marshland, Mathews Drive, Baygall and the Mitchelville area.
Neighborhood Outreach Connection's business model addresses this gap by being present in these neighborhoods. It has opened program centers in rented apartments on Hilton Head and in Bluffton in neighborhoods where large numbers of poor children live.
At these program centers, children have access to the same computers and instructional materials that are used in the schools, plus access to tutors trained by the Beaufort County School District. These students also receive support from the weekly presence of the Beaufort County Library.
These new-majority students can study after school, on weekends, and during the summer when "summer learning loss" occurs among poor students. These students also have access to computers and the Internet at the centers, thus providing them greater opportunity to learn and excel in school.
Neighborhood Outreach Connection's business model eliminates the need for parents to find transportation to or from their child's learning opportunities.
Neighborhood Outreach Connection -- in partnership with the Beaufort County Board of Education, local schools, and the Beaufort County Library -- is making some headway in educating the new majority.
But this is just a beginning and more needs to be accomplished through support from major stakeholders, including businesses, not-for-profit organizations, and local communities, to address this important challenge facing us today.
In fact, it is an economic imperative for Hilton Head, greater Bluffton, and Beaufort County to educate this new majority.
Without a well-qualified, competitive workforce, the local economy will fall short of its growth potential. Our economic future depends upon the high-quality education of all students, including the new majority.
Joan Deery of Hilton Head Island is a Neighborhood Outreach Connection board member and former member of the Beaufort County Board of Education. Dr. Narendra P. Sharma of Hilton Head is an economist and board chairman of Neighborhood Outreach Connection. Neighborhood Outreach can be reached at http://noc-sc.org.