“Slow and steady” is how one Birmingham area public school official describes the growth in her system’s numbers of minority students, and the comment could characterize the pattern statewide.
Behind black students, Hispanic students continue to make up the second-largest number and percentage of minority students in Alabama public schools, and their numbers are continuing to increase. The latest K-12 public school enrollment figures on file with the state Department of Education show a total enrollment of 734,855 students, of whom 55 percent are listed as white, 33 percent as black, slightly more than 7 percent as Hispanic, and a little over 1 percent as Asian.
The Hispanic percentage of the K-12 enrollment moved up slightly since last year. But numbers-wise, the Hispanic total of 54,527 for the 2016-17 school year represents an increase of 9 percent over last year’s enrollment figure. By itself, that number is larger than the population in a majority of the state’s 67 counties. About 45 percent of the state’s Hispanic students attend schools in the seven-county Birmingham-Hoover Metropolitan Statistical Area and in the north Alabama counties of DeKalb, Marshall, and Franklin.
Meanwhile, white and black enrollment has continued to decline. The white enrollment of 405,144 is slightly more than 1 percent below last year’s figure, and the black enrollment of 240,381 represents a drop of nearly 1 percent. By contrast, the Asian enrollment has nudged its way up, totaling 10,555 or about 1 percent higher than its statewide total of five years ago. About a fifth of the state’s Asian students attend schools in Jefferson and Shelby counties.
Every school system that serves pupils in Jefferson County has some Hispanic students, state enrollment figures show. With the exception of Fairfield, where the Hispanic number dropped from 36 last year to 32 this year, each of the systems is showing an increase in the current academic year, the highest being 29 percent in Trussville (where the small number of Hispanics increased from 54 to 70) and 10 percent in both Birmingham and Bessemer.
Overall, the Hispanic numbers range from 32 in Fairfield to more than 3,000 in the Jefferson County system. The highest percentage — nearly 24 — attends schools in the small Tarrant system, where the enrollment of 1,137 includes 272 Hispanics. Other systems with double-digit percentages of Hispanics include the 1,880-student Leeds system, and the 4,100-student Homewood system, each with about 13 percent. In the Hoover system, which has an enrollment of nearly 14,000, black students make up 25 percent of the total; Hispanics, about 8 percent, and Asian students, around 7 percent.
No Birmingham area school has the Hispanic enrollment numbers that some schools are continuing to see in parts of north Alabama. Take, for example, the DeKalb County system, where the latest figures show Hispanics amounting to about 30 percent of the system’s 8,828 students. At K-12 Collinsville High School in the county’s southeastern corner, 518 of the 914 students, or about 57 percent, are Hispanic. To the west, atop Sand Mountain, Crossville High, Middle, and Elementary schools show Hispanic enrollment percentages of about 61, 73, and 77, respectively.
In the neighboring Marshall County city of Albertville, the kindergarten and two-grade primary school each have Hispanic majorities of more than 50 percent, the two elementary schools are just shy of 50 percent, while the middle and high schools are at 41 and 40 percent. Other schools in the county system have Hispanic enrollments ranging from nearly 30 to 45 percent.
In northwest Alabama, the Russellville school system has seen a slight drop in its Hispanic enrollment, but Hispanics make up more than half of the enrollment in its two elementary schools and constitute more than 40 percent of the students in the middle and high schools.
The growing diversity of Birmingham area schools has not surprised veteran administrators who have seen it coming for some time. According to the Southern Regional Education Board’s Fact Book on Higher Education 2015, Alabama added 103,800 Hispanics to its population from 2003 to 2013, “more than doubling the percentage of Hispanic residents in the state.” A tabulation based on 2015 U.S. Census estimates puts the statewide Hispanic population at more than 204,000.
Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Department of Education, 2014 Hispanic and black high school graduation rates in Alabama were nearly on a par with the state rate of 86 percent. For Asian/Pacific Islanders, the rate was higher, at 91 percent; for white students, the rate was 88 percent. For English Language Learners, the rate was 67 percent.
In Homewood, where Hispanics make up 13 percent of the public school enrollment, Assistant Superintendent Betty Winches says the system has seen a “slow and steady” increase in its overall diversity.
“We like to think that we represent what the world is really like today, probably as well as any school district in this state,” said Winches, who started with the Homewood system as a teacher in 1975.
Jeff Singer, the seven-year principal at Hoover’s Green Valley Elementary School, has a similar characterization of his place of learning, where the enrollment is 22 percent Hispanic, but also includes students who speak nine other languages besides Spanish and English. Among those languages: Igbo, Berber, Nepali, Pohnpei, and Vietnamese.
“That gift of diversity also lends itself [to] certain opportunities, for us to learn from one another and … become wiser and grow and not only in understanding but also in service delivery as we are charged to enlighten and bolster and encourage those who have been placed in our care,” Singer said.
At the time Betty Winches began working in Homewood schools, the city was not the community that it is today, in which she says 30 different languages are spoken, and where teachers and staff not only find themselves helping new students learn English and academics, but also American culture.
“We’ve had students that have come from places that are little dirt road towns in the middle of nowhere in another country [where] they’ve hardly ever even seen a car,” Winches said. “We had one not too long ago that didn’t know how to flush a toilet.” Another student, she said, had to be weaned off of his tendency to take handfuls of food from a neighbor’s lunch plate.
“At the end of the day, as difficult as some of those situations were, I’d say that we have been blessed and enriched by this environment immeasurably,” Winches added. “And I will put it in the words of my youngest daughter who’s a Homewood High School graduate who, after she went to Auburn, moved to New York City. And she said, ‘Mom, you know, without Homewood and that culture and that acceptance of everybody, I don’t think I would have ever made it in New York City.”