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Lesson 2.1

The Changing Face of America's Students

Want to see the future of California? Look here.

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California's student body is diverse

California has the largest and most diverse student population in America. Diversity has many forms — this lesson will summarize a few of them.

About 6 million students attend California public K-12 schools. Another half a million or so attend private schools. In rough terms, our state has about half a million students in each grade level. To provide for their education, about 300,000 teachers and about 600,000 support staff work in about 10,000 schools in about 1,000 districts across the state.

Over half of California's students are Latinx

California is known worldwide as the Golden State. People from all over the world move here to live, work, and learn. People also move away, as summarized in a data-rich visual report from CalMatters titled California Migration. More than half of California's K-12 students are Latino/Latina (Latinx). In a huge demographic shift over roughly 30 years, the state’s K-12 schools had an increase of about 2 million Latino students, accounting for all of the net growth in California K-12 enrollment.

As of 2020, Latinx students make up about 55% of the state student body. Non-Latinx white students account for 22%. Most of the remaining students are Asian (10%), African-American (5%), or Filipino (2-3%). About 4% of California students associate themselves with none of the above. California’s large urban districts educate students from virtually every cultural and linguistic background on the planet.

In a huge demographic shift over roughly 30 years, the state’s K-12 schools added more than 2 million Latinx students, accounting for all of the net growth in California enrollment.

California's student body is very different than that of the United States as a whole, as this chart shows:

Diverse, but not blended

In total, California's student body is very diverse, but people tend to live in clusters. For example, only a tiny percentage of California's total student body is Armenian or Persian, but these are the largest cultural groups in Glendale. In Pacifica, many students speak Tagalog. In Westminster, many students speak Vietnamese. Yuba City is home to many Punjabi speakers. California's diversity is clumped like granola. San Francisco Unified School District has a diverse student body, in total, but each school is its own community. Some schools are very diverse and others less so. In southern California, more than 250,000 students attend schools where more than 95% of students are Latinx.

Anyway, even if a school is diverse on paper it doesn't ensure that students form diverse friendships and connections.

Demographers measure ethnic diversity using a statistical index that evaluates the odds that two people selected at random will be of the same ethnicity. California's statewide diversity index is 47 — you can check the diversity index of your school and district on

California's linguistic diversity: Nearly half of students are bilingual

Nearly half of California’s students speak a language other than English at home. Many have successfully learned English; less than a quarter of California’s students are English Language Learners (abbreviated EL or ELL), which means that they speak another language and have not yet achieved functional fluency in English.

Most of California's English Learners speak Spanish at home, but the state is linguistically diverse. In any given school there may be a cluster of English Learners who speak Vietnamese (2.1% of English Learners), Mandarin (1.6%), Arabic (1.4%), Tagalog (1.3%), Cantonese (1.2%), or any of dozens of other languages. (Click image for 2019-20 data.)

Status diversity: How many students in California are undocumented?

The biggest changes in California demographics have been driven by immigration, primarily from Mexico. Statistics regarding the immigration status of California’s students and their families are imprecise. As discussed in Lesson 2.9, undocumented students make up perhaps one in every 30 students enrolled in a California public school.

In 1982 the US Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v. Doe that immigration status cannot serve as a condition for enrollment in American public schools. Access to public education is open to all students residing in the US, regardless of immigration status. This right includes higher education; the California Dream Act extended in-state tuition benefits to all residents. After about a decade of litigation, in 2010 this policy was upheld by a unanimous ruling of the state Supreme Court.

Religious diversity

Pew Research studies the religious affiliation of adults.

California's religious diversity reflects the history of immigration to the state. Catholics are the largest single group, reflecting the long history of immigration from Latin America. For more information about religious diversity in California, visit the Pew Research Center.

Sexual Orientation

California has played a leading role in moving the American public toward accepting of another kind of diversity: sexual orientation and gender identity. The history of gay rights in California is beyond the scope of this lesson, but it is worth noting that a lot has changed in a few decades. For most young people, the struggle for marriage equality is mostly history, and students are reasonably likely to know teachers or other adults that don't conceal their orientation.

Measurement of changing public attitudes about sexual orientation is a key long-term priority of the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law. Researchers have struggled to provide journalists and policymakers with good data. What percentage of adults are gay or bisexual? What percentage of children will grow up to be gay or bisexual?

The short answer, as usual, is that it depends on how you define your terms. According to Williams Distinguished Scholar Gary J Gates, "An estimated 19 million Americans (8.2%) report that they have engaged in same-sex sexual behavior" but a lower percentage, about 3.5% of adults, identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual.

Gender Identity

Part of the experience of growing up is figuring yourself out, including sexual orientation and gender identity.In the past, these topics were widely taboo, but with each generation, the levels of acceptance appear to be increasing:

These are big numbers. School systems play a critical role in supporting all children through their adolescence, in part by encouraging them to accept and respect themselves, as well as people different from themselves.

This lesson was extensively updated on May 18, 2017
to include information about diversity in religious beliefs, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Updated March, 2018 with chart comparing student body of CA to USA.
Updated September 2018 with data about the linguistic diversity of over 200,000 English Learners in California.
Chart updated June 2019
Updated Oct 2020 with resources about gender diversity.
Extensively updated Dec 2020 including interactive charts.
Updated August 2022.


One of the following statements about California’s public school students is definitely NOT true - not even close. Which one?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Carol Kocivar June 5, 2022 at 4:01 pm
Looking for data on school segregation? The School Segregation Database will provide longitudinal estimates of segregation between schools and between districts for all states, metros, and districts in the US; among private schools, and between public and private schools; and among and between public traditional and charter sectors. We will estimate segregation with multiple indices for racial segregation, economic segregation, and racial economic segregation.

user avatar
Ami Admire November 3, 2021 at 9:37 pm
CA is home to the most remaining Native American Tribes in the country and no mention of their education outside of a bar graph. Talk about erasure! Our Native American students need help and not mentioning them adds to this erasure narrative and is a huge problem as to why services and dollars are not directed toward their education.
user avatar
Alan Ham July 23, 2020 at 10:25 am
I feel that we need more diversity at school, especially my high school. Students need to discuss and fight for this.
user avatar
David Shahal May 22, 2019 at 12:12 pm
Very interesting Statistics. So is the answer to bring in more ESL Teachers to help teach these students English?
user avatar
nkbird July 27, 2018 at 12:53 pm
I feel like I saw two statistics: about 10% of CA students are undocumented, and about 1 in 30 are undocumented. Which is more current?
user avatar
Alma Cacho May 2, 2018 at 9:53 am
I was a little surprised that have of the population in California are latinos.
user avatar
Jeff Camp May 5, 2018 at 10:25 pm
Not quite: Half of the K-12 student population of California is Latinos. For the whole population the percentage of Latinos is about 39%.
user avatar
francisco molina February 24, 2019 at 9:50 pm
The hispanic/latino students group in Ventura county represents the 60%, white group 30%.
user avatar
Megan Finlay March 4, 2020 at 12:41 pm
Does that mean Latinos are having more kids than other populations if the k-12 is half Latino but the population as a whole is 39%?
user avatar
Jeff Camp March 4, 2020 at 1:06 pm
Births have played a role, along with immigration. The Pew Center is a good source of info about patterns
user avatar
Robert Crowell May 2, 2018 at 9:16 am
Super interesting data about the growth of Latino students in California. Some of our teachers are still teaching the class they had 15 years ago.
user avatar
pamela_cfo December 5, 2017 at 9:45 pm
Understanding the statistics of gender, race and religion my question would ask what actually happen to our pledge of allegiance ? why did we have to change for others when it was a pledge attending school and now it is hardly mention anymore..
user avatar
Carol Kocivar December 2, 2017 at 11:59 am
California Is First State to Approve LGBT-Inclusive History Books for K-8 Schools
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder June 23, 2016 at 10:39 am
Affirmative Action was upheld by the US Supreme Court in 2016. The University of Texas includes race among the factors it uses for a portion of its admission decisions. In summer 2016 the US Supreme Court upheld this practice in Fischer v. University of Texas. This decision stirred up a lot of passionate, uninformed blather. Ignore all that and read the actual SCOTUS opinion and dissent here:
user avatar
norburypta February 29, 2016 at 6:56 pm
We make the issues harder to address by being imprecise, i.e., does 'Asians' include most Indians, many/most Russians, are 'Latinos' Caucasian, Negro, or Native Americans, etc.
Maybe sorting this out is not productive to the discussion.
user avatar
johanna.smith.nilsson May 21, 2015 at 11:34 am
In response to the first discussion question, if people in my community were asked to estimate the demographics of California's students I believe that they would overestimate the number of English Learners. When I was asked the same question, I estimated that over 50% of Californian students were English Learners (the actual statistic is more like 22%, according to the California Department of Education: In particular, I far overestimated the number of Asian students in California because the Mountain View-Los Altos district where I work has a much higher proportion of Asian and Asian-American students (~21% versus the 8.75% statewide). You can look up your district's enrollment by ethnicity at the CDE's website (
The changing demographics in schools mean that teachers and schools need to change the ways that they approach education. It is increasingly important for more teachers to be certified in teaching English Learners (ELs) and in bilingual instruction.
I don't actually know how many students in my district zone attend charter/private schools. A quick search didn't show any obvious answers.
user avatar
tonyammarquez April 28, 2015 at 8:50 am
what are demographics?
user avatar
johanna.smith.nilsson May 21, 2015 at 10:59 am
Demographics are statistics that describe certain populations or groups. For instance, the number of English Learners in California is its own demographic.
user avatar
Mark MacVicar April 24, 2015 at 3:00 pm
When I was in high school, way back in the 80's, I took Spanish figuring that it would be an important language to know given changing demographics. I don't think I had any idea that it would change this much.
user avatar
geecookie2011 April 18, 2015 at 6:38 am
However I am for "ALL" students gettin a quality education but still unfortunately the black or african american studentsin particular are african-american young males are still at the bottom of any scales or grass that shows that they are still the main ones who lack true education even under our immigrants students.
user avatar
jenzteam February 27, 2015 at 8:02 am
'Free' public education is usually the option for undocumented workers and/or hispanics. You (website) stated that 10% of students are undocumented. Why is that?! 43% speak another language at home (spanish?). Why aren't teachers allowed to speak Spanish in the classroom so these kids have equal opportunities?!
user avatar
johanna.smith.nilsson May 21, 2015 at 10:58 am
One of the main reasons that teachers aren't allowed to speak Spanish (or any other language) in the classroom is Proposition 227 that passed in 1998, stating that classes needed to be taught "overwhelmingly in English" (" It was passed partially in reaction to many parents feeling like their children weren't learning English in school, thus holding them back from other subjects.

Just last year a law was proposed by Senator Ricardo Lara to repeal Prop 227 ( This is a really important bill because many studies show that bilingual and dual-immersion are overall more successful for reclassification (

Up until very recently California didn't offer a secondary credential that is solely for teaching English Language Development. The only way to teach ELD was for teachers to get a credential in a different subject and then get an extra clearance to teach English Learners (now it's a part of every secondary ed credential) or to get a bilingual certification. Now that ELD has its own credential, hopefully more teachers will be prepared to teach our increasingly diverse student population!
user avatar
Eve Green February 4, 2015 at 11:27 pm
Just a point of clarification, are Latinos (or any other non-Blacks) considered people of color?
user avatar
johanna.smith.nilsson May 21, 2015 at 10:08 am
Yes. Any person who is non-Caucasian can be considered a POC. Here is the breakdown of enrollment by ethnicity in this school year.
user avatar
Arun Ramanathan March 10, 2011 at 1:56 pm
A few additional stats. With 1.3 million English Learners, CA has more English Learners than the individual student populations of 38 states. With 3 millon Latino students, CA has more Latino students than the individual student populations of 48 states. 73% of CA's public K-12 students are students of color.

This is a massive generational change and one that should be viewed in this increasingly globalized world as a strength. In particular, if we viewed speaking multiple languages as a strength vs. a weakness and invested in it vs. trying to eliminate it, CA would be leading the nation in bi- and multi-lingualism.

Now, based on recent census figures, we are a very different CA. Our Latino and Asian populations are growing while our White and African-American populations are either static or declining. Our population is shifting to the east vs. the more expensive west. And our students are increasingly poorer and more needy, espcially in these difficult economic times.

In our current climate, with the stranglehold the extremes of our parties and longtime lobbyists and staffers hold on Sacramento, we are barred from the type of structural change particularly in our education system that we need to address these massive shifts and focus on the needs of children. But at very least one thing is certain - demographic change of this magnitude will promote electoral change.
user avatar
Steven N June 20, 2014 at 3:45 pm
The largest structural change in public school financing in 4 decades happened in 2013 with Gov. Brown's inspired LCFF (Local Control Funding Formula). Coupled with the Accountability Plan - under local district political control - we shall see how local communities follow through with structural change. From the vantage point of mid 2014 - and EdSource's LCAP coverage, it seems that "change" will go really slowly in some communities. I'm not so disillusioned with the prospect of reform! Some of the LCAP plans are inspired.
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