In Fairfax County kindergarten classes, school system’s future comes into focus

During the past five years, costs for English language instruction increased by more than $18 million, and elementary school teachers say they spend an increasing amount of their time on remedial education.

The kindergartners of the Class of 2026, who finished their first year in Fairfax County schools Wednesday, constitute the largest and one of the most ethnically, culturally and socioeconomically diverse groups of students the county has seen, a fact that school system administrators say could pose significant challenges in the decade to come.?

Long an enclave of predominantly white, middle-class families with a top-class school system, Fairfax has experienced a dramatic demographic shift in recent years that is nowhere more obvious than in the county’s kindergarten classrooms. The white student population is receding and is being replaced with fast-growing numbers of poor students and children of immigrants for whom English is a second language.?

More than one-third of the 13,424 kindergartners in the county this year qualified for free or reduced-price meals, a federal measure of poverty, and close to 40 percent of the Class of 2026 requires additional English instruction, among the most ever for a Fairfax kindergarten class.

The demographic changes in Fairfax are likely to have long-term implications for the school system: Most of this year’s kindergarten class will spend the next 12 years in county schools. Schools officials believe that the challenges that come with a less-affluent and less-prepared population will exacerbate the system’s struggles with a widening achievement gap for minorities and ballooning class sizes.

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