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Surge in Asian students has impact on Forsyth schools

“Before I was principal here, I’d never had Indian food,” said Daves Elementary principal Eric Ashton. “Now I look forward to it.” Because it has so many students of Indian heritage, an Indian dish is served about once a week, as well as vegetarian dishes, in the school cafeteria. (Photo/Rebecca Wright for the AJC)
“Before I was principal here, I’d never had Indian food,” said Daves Elementary principal Eric Ashton. “Now I look forward to it.” Because it has so many students of Indian heritage, an Indian dish is served about once a week, as well as vegetarian dishes, in the school cafeteria. (Photo/Rebecca Wright for the AJC)

Like almost every school system across the country, Forsyth County has seen an influx of students whose parents come from other countries. But unlike many of those districts, a great number of these children aren’t from countries in turmoil and are proficient in English. According to the 2018 U.S. Census, among counties with 20,000 people or more, Forsyth County has the fastest growing Asian population in the nation.

From 2017 to 2018 Forsyth County’s Asian population grew by 3,734 people, but over the last decade, its Asian population nearly tripled. By comparison, the Asian population in the Atlanta metro only grew by 43%.

That demographic shift has brought about a lot of changes in a county that had a reputation for keeping out people of color. To this day, almost everyone who’s lived in Forsyth for 20 years or more remembers 1987 when Oprah Winfrey aired her show from there and dubbed it the whitest county in America. Civil rights activist Hosea Williams brought a group of protesters to speak out against the fact that no blacks had lived there for 75 years. He was subsequently arrested.

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Tonia Davis was aware of that event when her family moved to Georgia more than 18 years ago from New Jersey. Pregnant with her first child, she and her husband were looking in North Fulton neighborhoods. The black couple settled on an Alpharetta address and didn’t find out they were in Forsyth County until it came time to enroll in school.

“It turns out we sit right on the line,” she said. “Just one street over is Fulton County.”

Realizing that the unrest had been decades past, the family decided to try to make it work. She and others helped form a committee with school staff and a diverse group of parents tasked with adopting more diversity and inclusion in the schools.

“It began with insisting that Black History Month events were included in the school calendar and making sure it was celebrated,” said Davis. “The principal was open about it and we’re working to make the celebrations informative and entertaining and going beyond the same people highlighted every year.”

Davis said that gradually Forsyth County has become more welcoming. And while pretty much everyone will acknowledge it’s not perfect, results include improved schools, continued economic development and exposing children to a community that more accurately reflects the rest of the world.

About a third of Atlanta’s Asian population is of Indian heritage, according to Census data. Many came to the U.S. on student and work visas, and about two-thirds are naturalized citizens, the Census shows.

For parents looking for good schools and communities where their home-buying dollars would go furthest, Forsyth County was the perfect place.

Saraswathi Chidambaram has been in the county for eight years and has two children in Forsyth schools: Atmik Acharya, 12, attends Lakeside Middle and Advaith Acharya, 9, is at Daves Creek Elementary.

“We lived in Austin, Texas and wanted to move to the Atlanta area to be near family,” she said.

At the time, her children were pre-school age, and like Davis, she and her husband wanted someplace to land.

“We didn’t want to have to move again in another five or six years,” said Chidambaram. “We wanted to put down roots and raise our family.”

It was right after the bubble burst on the housing market, and they found the bucolic setting of Forsyth County rich with impressive homes, good schools, family-friendly amenities such as parks and libraries and a price tag that couldn’t be beat.

“We did our homework,” she said. “We saw so many school buses picking up children in the neighborhood that we knew it was very family-oriented.”

Chidambaram said her decision was typical of many Indian immigrants.

In the 13 years that Eric Ashton has been principal of Daves Creek Elementary, the Forsyth County school has gone from whites making up about 95% of the student population to Asian/Indian students comprising 75% today.

“It was a rural school district with almost no subdivisions,” said Ashton. “Then Windermere came in with the golf community and we became more suburban.”

The most important factor in making the new normal work, said Superintendent Jeff Bearden, is communicating with all stakeholders — staff, parents and the community at large — the overall mission of the school district.

“We want everyone to have a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging here no matter where they or their parents were born, no matter their skin color or economic status,” he said. “We work to understand and respect all cultures.”

And that comes with a learning curve.

Ashton recalled how many of the Indian parents wanted to bring hot lunches to their children every day.

“From a logistic standpoint that just wouldn’t work,” he said. That could be 500 or more parents coming to school in an hour window. A compromise was adding an Indian dish about once a week as well as vegetarian dishes in the school cafeteria.

And just as schools acknowledge Christian holidays such as Christmas, special considerations were made for Diwali, a five-day Hindu festival of lights that usually takes place from mid-October to mid-November.

There was a potluck event last year where students and some teachers dressed in the lavish costumes and the school was appropriately decorated.

“Before I was principal here, I’d never had Indian food,” said Ashton. “Now I look forward to it.”

But the cultural difference went beyond food and religion. The Indian parents expected and demanded rigorous instruction and up-to-date technology. That brought about more Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes as well as a greater push for STEM- (science, technology, engineering and math) and STEAM- (STEM with arts added) focused learning.

“We have an incredible amount of technology — including 3D printers, iPads, etc.,” said Ashton.

It’s not unusual to see that insistence on advanced learning from Indian parents, according to Utpal M. Dholakia, a marketing professor at Rice University and an Indian immigrant.

“More than 75 percent of current first-generation Indian-Americans have immigrated to the United States since the 1990s. They make up only about 1 percent of the US population (3.9 million as of 2017) but have disproportionate numbers of professionals such as physicians, corporate executives and successful entrepreneurs. Their median annual household income is $100,000, which is significantly higher than other immigrant groups or the U.S. population as a whole,” he wrote in his weekly blog.

Dholakia explained that these immigrants strive for high education attainment because they usually come from the upper echelons of their native society. According to the Immigration Policy Institute, 77 percent of Indian American adults have a college degree. In comparison, only 29 percent of all immigrants and 31 percent of native-born Americans are college graduates. Very few uneducated Indians make it to the U.S.

The explosive growth of the minority student population nationwide is due partly to the U.S.-born children of immigrants. According to the Pew Research Center, between 1997 and 2013, the number of U.S.-born Asians increased by 50%, while the number of Asian immigrants during that time grew by just 9%. Among U.S.-born Hispanics, the number of children between ages 5 and 17 nearly doubled between 1997 and 2013, while immigrant children of the same age actually declined by more than one quarter.

Although parents haven’t urged school officials to hire more Indian and other Asian teachers, Forsyth is working to have a staff more reflective of the community. As in just about every other school system, that goal is extremely difficult to attain.

Of the 3.7 million teachers in U.S. public schools in 2019, about 80 percent were white. This represents little change since 1986 when 91 percent of teachers were white, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Forsyth has had some Indian-born teacher candidates, but certification has been an issue. Credentials from other countries and even other states aren’t always accepted.

The school district has worked toward expanding its small candidate pool, and career pathways for students who aspire to be teachers have been moderately successful.

“We have two African-American teachers this year,” said Ashton. “But we know we have to do better.”

He added that many of the Indian students are more interested in careers in technology, medicine or other areas.

“Within three to five years we will be a majority-minority school district and it will be even more difficult for staff to reflect the demographics of the community,” said Bearden.

In the six years he’s been superintendent, Forsyth has added nearly 1,500 students each year. That explosive growth has prompted penny sales tax referendums — $195 million in 2014 and $295 million in 2018 — to fund construction of new schools.

“We’ll probably need to go back in 2022 for another bond,” said Bearden. “But the community has been very supportive and we’ve been using the opportunity to add career- and college-ready programs.”

He added, “We’re poised to be larger than Atlanta Public Schools and even Clayton County Schools within the next decade,” he said. “And it’s a challenge we’re ready to take on and remain focused on giving every student the best education possible.”

By the numbers:

Comparison of Georgia and Forsyth County student demographics for 2019-2020

Georgia Forsyth County

Hispanic: 16% 14%

American Indian: less than 1% 2%

Asian: 4% 23%

Black: 36% 4%

Pacific Islander less than 1% 0%

White: 38% 54%

Multiracial: 4% 3%

Source: Georgia Department of Education