A report released by the Southern Education Foundation notes that the South has become the first region of the country where more than half of public school children are poor and more than half are members of ethnic minority groups.

According to the report, the shift was fueled by influx of Latinos and the return of Blacks to the South in recent years. These trends have exacerbated the demographic shifts which began with the flight of White families to the suburbs during the 1970s and 1980s.

As communities across the South struggle to grow productive, highly educated work forces, they  face daunting challenges given the lower achievement rates among poor and minority students, who – too often – reach school at a social, emotional and cognitive disadvantage. By 36 months of age, a child from an impoverished family may have a vocabulary a third the size of a child from a professional family. This inequality tracks with children as they progress through school, and low income children are much more likely to be held back a grade, and to drop out.

According to Michael Rebell, executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University, the implications of this trend are enormous: “When we realize that the majority of graduates of our schools are going to come from backgrounds with educational deprivation, it makes it imperative that schools be improved.” It also becomes imperative to understand that deprivation begins long before children reach the school house doors.

These trends are well-recognized in Memphis, the largest school district in the state of Tennessee, and 21st largest district in the country. More than 80 percent of students in Memphis City Schools are low-income and a similar percentage of students are ethnic minorities.