The face of Alabama has been changing for some time, but if you want to get a glimpse up close, you can visit Rudd Middle School in Pinson Valley. Walk into the central commons from where hallways lead to and from classrooms, and hanging on the walls are lavishly colored tin skull ornaments, designed by students in one of Casey Williamson’s art classes, for the Mexican feast known as the Day of the Dead.
Go into Christy Shelnutt’s sixth-grade social studies classroom where students are black, white and brown, and you will see a word wall, where words that are keys to understanding the social studies curriculum — and the academic vocabulary that Shelnutt’s students will need for other classes — are listed in English and Spanish.
Ten years ago, Rudd had no Hispanic students. Now, according to enrollment figures filed earlier this fall with the state, about 16 percent of its 760 students are Hispanic. The first week in December, Principal Susan Whitehurst said the number of Hispanic students was 128.
“I really anticipate that probably in the next five to 10 years we will be a third white, a third black and a third Hispanic,” Whitehurst said. “And that’s kind of a neat little mix that you’re not going to find just anywhere.”
The steady increase that Rudd Middle has seen is mirrored in the enrollment figures filed with the Alabama Department of Education for the 2014-15 school year. Statewide, K-12 enrollment has dropped almost three percent, from 736,789 in 2013-14 to 733,089 this year, but the number of Hispanic students has increased from 40,682 to 44,887, an increase of 17 percent.
As a share of the statewide enrollment total, that number is still small, at about three percent, but it is larger than the populations of a lot of Alabama cities, such as Vestavia Hills, Florence and Gadsden. According to U.S. Census figures for 2013, Hispanics made up 4.1 percent of Alabama’s 4.8 million residents, or about 200,000 in actual numbers.
The growth in the state’s number of Hispanic public school students can be found in places that have long had some of the state’s largest Hispanic populations — places such as the north Alabama counties of Marshall, DeKalb and Franklin, but growth is also happening in the Birmingham area. Rudd Middle School, for example, is part of the Jefferson County system, which saw its Hispanic enrollment rise from 2,324 to 2,592, an increase of 11 percent.
Many students and teachers get to Rudd by heading north toward Blount County along Alabama 79, and the journey itself is illustrative of Alabama’s changing landscape. The highway is full of small strip shopping centers, service stations, sprawling manufacturing plants, warehouses and franchise fast food joints, and sprinkled among them are Hispanic grocery stores, barbershops and restaurants.
Rudd Middle is a right turn off the highway, on Rudd School Road, and sits by itself in a tranquil rural setting, sheltered from the noise of Alabama 79 traffic. It has three grades — sixth, seventh and eighth — and has 48 faculty members, one of whom is an ESL (English as a Second Language) instructor, and its athletic teams are known as the Indians.
In the highlights section of the school website, congratulations are given to the 2014-15 soccer team. The team has 22 listed members, and 15 of them have last names like Duarte, Lucatero, Mendez and Vega.
Susan Whitehurst has been Rudd’s principal for nine years, and has witnessed much of the school’s changing demographics. White and black students each make up slightly more than 40 percent of the enrollment, and Hispanics make up the rest.
“We are probably one of the most diverse schools…in the area, and that’s really kind of cool because, you know, kids get to see and interact more as children in an environment that’s really similar to what they will be exposed to when they are adults…operating in society,” Whitehurst said.
Diversity has brought challenges. Rachael Reyes, the school’s ESL teacher, works with teachers and students to help the students learn not just class content, but also how to express that content, orally and in writing. She also meets with Hispanic parents and translates into Spanish the messages on the automated school phone calls that go to them.
About 80 of the Rudd’s Hispanic students were in ESL classes at some point, Reyes said, and about 27 have yet to make a passing score on the state’s English Language Proficiency Test. And for three Hispanic students, this year at Rudd is their first ever at an American school.
“That’s a lot,” Reyes said. “Suppose there are three at each school throughout the system.” The county, she said, needs to help such students figure out the new school environment.
“While our school is doing so much to train teachers on how to best teach ESL students, we really need a newcomer center to help our brand new students,” Reyes said. “For me, if we get a new student, I could spend all day with that child for two weeks helping them. Just how you go through the lunch line, you need to punch in your number here, this is where you go to the office if you need something, this is where you need to check in and out of school if you have a doctor appointment.”
Because of Rudd’s changing population, teachers have not only been changing their methods, but even certain assumptions that all children, regardless of their circumstances, may share a common body of knowledge.
Christy Shelnutt said she taught sixth-grade science last year, “and we were doing a unit on the ocean. Well, I had a couple of kids who didn’t know where the ocean was, had never seen the ocean.” In response, Shelnutt used words and photographs to fill that knowledge void.
“It’s a process,” she said. “It’s a work in process.”
The process at Rudd, and at other schools with significant Hispanic numbers, has had some external distractions. The biggest one was the tough immigration law that the state legislature passed a few years back. As originally drawn, the law’s provisions included a requirement that public schools report the immigration status of their students, but that requirement no longer exists. And even though the issue of undocumented immigrants is still a hot topic politically, Whitehurst said she and her staff don’t deal with it, and don’t ask students about the immigration status of their parents.
“These children are here, and they are ours to teach,” Whitehurst said. “They have no control over…why they are here, what happened, what their circumstances are, so it would be really ludicrous for us to do anything to punish a child for something they have no control over.”
According to estimates in an April report from the Pew Research Center, Alabama was one of five states with the fastest-growing Hispanic populations between 2000 and 2012. The Pew report states that Alabama’s Hispanic population jumped 157 percent during that period. The four other states with the fastest-growing Hispanic populations were Tennessee, South Carolina, Kentucky and South Dakota, and they saw percentage increases ranging from 132 to 163 percent.
Hispanics made up nearly a fourth of Pre-K-12 public school enrollment around the nation in 2011, according to Pew estimates. A Pew report for 2012 issued in November states that children “with at least one unauthorized immigrant parent accounted for 6.9 percent of U.S. students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
“A significant majority of these students were born in the U.S. (representing 5.5 percent of all students in 2012); the rest (1.4 percent of all students) are unauthorized immigrants themselves,” the Pew report states.