Situated in what is considered to be the most diverse county in the world, Sugar Land, Missouri City and Fort Bend ISD are working to meet the needs of Fort Bend County’s multicultural community. Sugar Land has developed an institutional multicultural education program, Missouri City is working on a new development plan with its diverse population in mind, and Fort Bend ISD is investing in its English language learner programs.
“We honestly think [Fort Bend County] is the single most ethnically diverse county in the world,” said Stephen Klineberg, the Rice University sociologist who initiated the annual Kinder Houston Area Survey in 1982 to measure Houston area demographics and cultural attitudes.
Klineberg said his team came to the conclusion that Fort Bend County was the most diverse in the world by way of the entropy index, or how close the population comes to being made up of one-fourth each of four major ethnic groups—Asian, Latino, African-American and Anglo.
“By that measure, Fort Bend County is 20 percent Asian, 24 percent Latino, 21 percent African-American and 35 percent Anglo,” he said, adding that the demographics cannot get much closer to the index than that.
In Sugar Land, Anglos represent 44 percent of the city and Asians, 35 percent, according to 2010 U.S. Census data. The Hispanic population represents 11 percent and African-Americans make up 7 percent.
“Within the Asian category, approximately one-third of our Asian residents are Indian with another third being Chinese,” said Reena Varghese, the city’s strategic initiatives director. “This is followed by Vietnamese at 13 percent, Pakistani at 12 percent, Filipino at 6 percent and Taiwanese at 5 percent.”
The city of Sugar Land has made efforts to reach out to employees and the community through cultural training and events since 2009. The city created a multicultural program under the direction of the city manager. The city also has both an employee and community multicultural advisory committee.
“We needed to learn about our community and its different cultures,” Sugar Land City Manager Allen Bogard said. “So we went through a series of learning exercises where we invited each one of our major ethnic groups—leaders from those communities—to come in and educate the city leadership.”
Bogard said those lessons covered the Indian, Chinese, South Asian, Pakistani and Vietnamese cultures in a broad sense. City personnel learned about those groups’ cultural elements including food, religion and family dynamics. It also holds the Cultural Kite Festival and the Gulf Coast Dragon Boat Regatta races each year among its cultural events.
Bogard said the city used its tools for multicultural education to train staff how to interface with the community — for instance telling police of how to interact with people who may come from countries where there is distrust toward government and police.
“Thirty-four percent of our residents are actually foreign-born,” Bogard said. “That is very unique in Texas for cities to have that type of diversity. It was all about how do we learn enough to be good service providers?”
As a way to accommodate Sugar Land residents, the city’s website can also be translated to 103 different languages.
In Missouri City, 22.3 percent of residents are foreign-born and the ethnic breakdown is 41 percent black or African-American, 16.2 percent Asian, 15.3 percent Hispanic and 24.9 percent Anglo, according to U.S. Census data from the 2010 census. Jennifer Thomas Gomez, the interim assistant director for Missouri City’s development services department, said diversity is essential to the city’s comprehensive plan. The plan will be updated in the fall with a 20-year development blueprint for the future, she said.
The City Council appoints community members to be on its Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee made up of residents, business owners and municipal utility district representatives, among others, who provide input on the comprehensive plan.
“The committee members are very knowledgeable,” committee member Karen Overton said. “They’re residents who have been in the community over 10, 20 years. It’s a very diverse committee where people have lived in Missouri City and have a tremendous interest of it being successful.”
Thomas Gomez said the committee is intentionally diverse.
“We’re merging all of those different ideas in the form of a comprehensive plan and making sure our development standards are responsive to that,” she said.
The advisory committee has 19 members altogether.
“Missouri City has an opportunity to kind of show how we can work successfully in order to create a community open to all to live and thrive,” Thomas Gomez said.
Although many newcomers to the country speak English, for those who do not or are limited, resources are available in both Sugar Land and Missouri City. In March, the Missouri City Branch Library started hosting English conversation circles once a week.
“We wanted to provide a comfortable space and a nonthreatening space for people who were new to the English language to practice,” Missouri City Branch Library Manager Cecillia Shearron-Hawkins said.
Open to all skill levels, the circles are led by a librarian, and the group will casually talk, play word games or become familiar with figures of speech, including idioms.
“I’m hoping to get more locations in the Sugar Land/Missouri City area,” said Mary Hulse, Fort Bend County Libraries literacy and volunteer services specialist.
Aside from Missouri City’s library, the conversation circles are also held at the George Memorial and Cinco Ranch Branch libraries in Richmond and Katy, respectively. Hulse said the English conversation circles started as a complementary program to the services offered by the Literacy Council of Fort Bend County, which works with the library system. The Literacy Council, which is based in Sugar Land, offers adult basic education on an income-based pay scale. Its programs include basic literacy, English language learner classes, and GED and U.S. citizenship courses.
“A l ot of our [English as a second language] students are doing ESL and reading and writing because we don’t want them to just learn how to speak English. We want them to have the literacy package,” Literacy Council Executive Director Kelli Metzenthin said.
She said diversity is reflected in the Literacy Council’s student base with about 60 percent of the 650 to 800 students it serves enrolled in the ESL program.
“Since I have been here, it’s been about 40 percent Asian, 40 percent Hispanic, 10 percent African-American, 10 percent white,” Metzenthin said. “We have over 80 different countries represented here by our students and [about] 40 different languages.”
With increasing diversity comes new challenges, Klineberg said.
He said one challenge is the quality of and access to education—a major predictor of socioeconomic status—and whether Houston and the surrounding areas are willing to invest in all children.
“The jury is out, is my sense,” Klineberg said. “There are reasons for some optimism and some sense of encouragement, but also some real concern about are we going to be making the kind of investments that we need, especially in education, where Texas and Houston are at the bottom of the 50 states in spending on education.”
To educate its students, Fort Bend ISD has been working with its English language learner and bilingual populations, identifying those who need more help and training more teachers to be ELL certified.
“Last year we trained and certified 52 teachers,” said Lupita Cavazos García, Fort Bend ISD executive director of federal and special programs. “This year we have already trained and certified 355 teachers.”
The district pays for the certification, an investment of $450 per teacher, she said. García said the majority of students who use those educational services are primarily Spanish speakers.
“As of late we’ve been getting an influx of students, especially from Latin American countries, who have not been in school,” García said. “Those are our biggest challenge. They seem to come to us and maybe they are 16, and they’ve never set foot in a school.”
To help another population, the district uses its English Language Immersion Center to educate students who have been in the country for five years or more but still do not know English.
In the past year, García said 235 students were identified in that category. She said 101 of those 235 students were also identified as needing special education.
“What we found by putting them in a smaller environment was that some of these kids were really needing to test for special education because no matter how much we tried, they weren’t making any progress,” García said.
Altogether, Fort Bend ISD has 11,562, or 15 percent, of its students in either bilingual or ELL education, García said. Total FBISD enrollment was 73,774 as of May 17. Klineberg said as the economy becomes global and more reliant on human resources, today’s choices will determine whether increasing diversity will be an asset or a liability.
“What we are dealing with in the world today is not an ethnic divide,” Klineberg said. “It’s a class divide, a class divide based above all else on access to quality education.”