Statistics show that 30 percent of preschool-age children are minorities.
Walk into Ms. Ouren's preschool classroom in Columbia Heights, and you see the changing face of Minnesota staring back.
The state's youngest residents are much more racially diverse than a decade ago, according to the latest census numbers, and children under age 5 are the most diverse of all age groups in Minnesota.
The census data released this week reveals that the preschool age set is on the leading edge of a demographic trend that could transform local schools, neighborhoods, and the labor force in the coming years.
Experts say immigration is the driving force behind the changes recorded by the U.S. Census Bureau of American Community Survey population estimates. According to the Census Bureau, the percentage of minority children in Minnesota under the age of 5 jumped from 21 percent in 2000 to 30 percent in 2011.
"What's going on mainly is that we've had an increase in immigration in Minnesota in the last 20 years," said State Demographer Susan Brower. "When people usually migrate, they're in their late teens, early 20s. Then they start having children once they're here."
Tom Gillaspy, retired state demographer who now works as a consultant and occasional speaker to business groups, said the immigrant workers settling in Minnesota and having children represent a broad socioeconomic swath. They include low-skilled workers and those with technical expertise who are recruited by companies and whose children are included in the latest census numbers.
In some parts of the state, the percentage of preschool-age children who are minorities is fast approaching or has crossed the 50 percent mark. Minorities have become the majority among the preschool population in Mahnomen County, 71 percent; Nobles County, 60 percent; and Ramsey County, 54 percent. Hennepin County has almost reached the tipping point, with 48 percent of its preschool set minority.
The numbers for Mahnomen County may not reflect any big changes, Brower said, noting that the county's population has long been predominantly American Indian. Still, compared to the rest of the country, Minnesota remains a mostly white state. Minorities currently make up 17 percent of the population here and about 36 percent of the national population.
"We're still less diverse than the U.S. as a whole but we've been increasing at the same rate," Brower said of the state's growing minority presence, especially among the youngest Minnesotans.
The wave of diversity rolling through the state is expected to pose challenges and benefits for school districts. Many have struggled with declining enrollment -- and with it, falling revenue -- as the school-age population declined. The increase in minority students at the preschool level suggests more students will enter the pipeline for elementary schools. But at a time when the achievement gap between whites and students of color in Minnesota is among the widest in the country, the increase in minority students could further strain the schools.
"There certainly are language differences and sometimes cultural differences when we're talking about immigrant populations," Brower said.
Students in Karissa Ouren's preschool classroom represent at least eight different cultures and five different languages. Many of her students are children or grandchildren of immigrants, she said. Most of her students whose parents are immigrants speak a language other than English at home.
That presents a challenge, she says, as the goal of the pre-kindergarten program is to get the kids ready for school and to build pre-literacy skills in English. But research also shows it is helpful for children who have a first language other than English to also preserve that home language.
The growing diversity among Minnesota's youngest age groups may also foretell changes in Minnesota's workforce.
As this generation grows and moves through school and enters the labor force, they have the potential to transform the workplace, Brower said. As they move into leadership positions, she said, "there will be more minority representation there than what it has been in the past."
Allie Shah • 612-673-4488