Amid Immigration Controversy, More Hispanic Students Arrive in Alabama Classrooms

A bulletin board at Lipscomb Elementary School

Lipscomb Elementary School, tucked away on a quiet neighborhood street, does not draw a lot of attention to itself. Its enrollment numbers, however, show a dramatic story of Alabama’s growing Hispanic population.

The school in the Jefferson County school system is a plain red-brick complex near Bessemer, Birmingham and Brighton and Midfield. It serves grades K-5, and is a Title I school. That means most of its students are from low-income families and need additional resources, primarily in math and English, so they can learn on the same level as their better-off counterparts elsewhere in the system.

Fifteen years ago, Lipscomb had 188 students, most of them black, with a handful of whites. Today it has 254 students, and the enrollment is almost evenly split among Hispanics and blacks. Most of the Hispanic students are U.S.-born, mostly of Mexican heritage, and about 80 of them are taking English as a Second Language classes.

Reflecting the growing Hispanic presence in its classrooms and hallways, Lipscomb held Hispanic heritage month from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15 last year. During that month, the children danced and sampled food prepared by parents of some of their fellow students; each classroom did research on a Spanish-speaking country south of the border.

Lipscomb recently observed Black History Month, and principal Reta Hayes says its chief lesson was “that even though we may be all of different cultures, and (though) we may be of different colors overall, we are still one big happy family.”

Different cultures and colors have been a growing fact of life in Alabama public schools in recent decades. Enrollment figures from the state Department of Education for the current academic year show nearly 727,000 students in K-12, a decline of 11 percent over last year due to a drop in both white and black enrollment. Statewide Hispanic/Latino numbers, however, showed an increase, rising 6 percent over last year to total 57,817, or about 8 percent of the total K-12 enrollment. In 2000-01, the K-12 Hispanic total was 9,541, or about 16 percent of the current figure.

In the Jefferson County system, the Hispanic number for 2000-01 was 350. Today, the number is 3,375, or more than nine times larger.

Hispanic Enrollment Keeps Growing

The increase in Hispanic enrollment has continued despite a toughening national attitude toward immigration, the uncertain status of immigrants who are already here, and the Alabama Legislature’s passage in 2011 of a harsh anti-illegal immigration law known as HB 56, provisions of which have been put on hold by courts. For example, the Jefferson County system has the largest number of Hispanic students in the state, and it registered the state’s largest numerical increase from 2016-17, when it listed 3,089 to this year’s 3,375. Due to fewer white students, the system’s enrollment is down to 35,907, and Hispanics now constitute 9 percent of that total.

In the Birmingham system, where the overall enrollment is slightly down, 1,521 Hispanics now constitute nearly 7 percent of the nearly 23,000 students, and their numbers are 5 percent higher than they were in 2016-17. Hispanics now account for about a fourth of the students at both Tuggle and Glen Iris elementary schools, 12 percent of the enrollment at Carver High, and 13 percent at Hayes K-8 and Huffman Middle schools.

Other area school systems in the metropolitan area showed slight percentage increases or stayed at last year’s percentages, but their actual numbers of Hispanics increased. Some of the numeric increases were tiny, such as three in Midfield, four in Vestavia Hills, five in Oneonta, six in Mountain Brook, and seven each in Homewood and Fairfield. Leeds added 10 Hispanics, Hoover and Trussville each added 15, the Walker and Blount county systems each saw their numbers go up by 16, while Bibb County added 19; Pelham, 32; Bessemer, 35; St. Clair County, 37; and Shelby County, 88.

Lipscomb Elementary School Principal Reta Hayes, right, and Miyoko Kelley, who heads Lipscomb’s English as a Second Language instruction.

Elsewhere in the state, the systems with large Hispanic populations are still seeing the numbers growing, but not by leaps and bounds. In northeast Alabama’s DeKalb County, Hispanics make up 31 percent of the system’s 8,698 students. That amounts to a percentage increase over last year, but it is due primarily to the system’s overall loss of 130 students. Overall, Hispanic numbers went up by only 17. In the Sand Mountain town of Crossville, Hispanics make up a majority of the elementary, middle, and high school enrollments. About 10 miles to the east, they are nearly 60 percent of the students at K-12 Collinsville High.

In neighboring Marshall County, the Hispanic percentage in the city of Albertville’s school system rose from 47 percent in 2016-17 to 49 percent this year. The system added 153 students this year, and most of them were Hispanic. Three of the system’s six schools have Hispanic majorities, and Hispanic percentages in the other three schools range from 43 percent to 49 percent.

In the northwest Alabama city of Russellville, the school system saw a 3 percent drop in total enrollment, but Hispanic numbers remained almost the same, and Hispanics now make up nearly half of the system’s 2,382 students and are the majority in two of its four schools.

Systems with students who cannot speak English or have difficulty using it have been adding ESL teachers at a steady clip. Twenty years ago, the Jefferson County system had just three ESL teachers, but it had fewer than 300 students who had “limited English proficiency (LEP).” Today, Jefferson County schools have 33 ESL teachers, and more than 1,700 LEP students. Most of the students are Hispanic, but Lari Valtierra, the system’s supervisor of ESL education, says students from other linguistic backgrounds have always been part of the mix. More than 50 languages are now spoken in the Jefferson County system.

Students in teacher Sara Cummins’ third-grade class at Lipscomb Elementary School. Twenty years ago, black students made up most of the enrollment at the Jefferson County school. Today, nearly half of Lipscomb’s students are Hispanic.

In addition, each school in the system has at least one teacher, certified or with specialized training, who can work with English-challenged students in their classrooms. The county also has two newcomer centers, one at Pinson Valley High in the east, the other at McAdory High in the west, where groups of high-school-age students get intensive English instruction as well as lessons to help them adjust to the American school experience and, ultimately, become career or college-ready.

Alabama Law and DACA

The upward Hispanic enrollment trend in Alabama public schools has been steady for years, and the trend continued even when immigrant communities around the state were alarmed by the passage in 2011 of the state’s tough immigration law. The law was challenged in court, and judges did not allow some of its provisions to take effect. Among those provisions was a requirement that schools check the immigration status of their students.

In the immediate aftermath of HB 56, about 100 Hispanic students left the Jefferson County system, Valtierra said. “We had families (where) the parents were picked up, the kids were at home and where did the kids go?” she said. But over time, with court rulings and school officials’ reassurances that they were not going to become immigration agents, a majority of those students came back, Valtierra said.

Now, with immigration again a hot political issue and the future uncertain for immigrants currently in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, immigrant communities are fearful again, Valtierra said.

“So many people are (saying) ‘Well you know, we’re just going to go back to wherever our home country is cause they don’t want us here anymore,’” Valtierra said. “We haven’t seen that transfer into actuality, but that’s the conversation right now.”

The DACA program allows hundreds of thousands of people, often called “Dreamers,” who were brought to the United States illegally as children, to remain in the country and receive work permits if they meet certain requirements. One of those requirements: they must have entered the U.S. before their 16th birthday. DACA has been in existence since 2012, when President Barack Obama issued an executive order creating the program. According to the Pew Research Center, the Dreamers generally range in age from 16 to 36. About 30 percent of them are from 16 to 20 years old, an age range that covers years in high school or college.

Republicans have called DACA unconstitutional, and the Trump administration has ordered that DACA expire on March 5, but courts have put that order on hold. In the Congress, lawmakers are wrangling over immigration reform, with legal protection for Dreamers one of the unresolved issues. Meanwhile, data from the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) shows 143,470  administrative arrests of illegal immigrants in fiscal 2017, which ended on Sept. 30. That number, according to ICE, was the highest in three years. According to ICE, the numbers of arrests and removals also have jumped in the agency’s area of operations that consists of Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. In FY ‘16, the area saw 5,174 arrests and 4,778 removals. In FY ‘17, arrests totaled 7,968 and removals totaled 9,471. ICE spokesman Thomas Byrd said the agency did not track totals for individual states.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, the nation had nearly 690,000 residents with DACA protection as of last September, with 1.3 million more eligible. Alabama had 3,900 residents with DACA protection, with about 9,000 more eligible.

Valtierra said Jefferson County has some DACA-protected students who are uncertain about their future. She said members of other immigrant communities served by the county system also are troubled by the Trump administration’s decision to remove Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to immigrants from several countries, including El Salvador and Haiti. The administration says the status is no longer necessary for the Salvadorans and Haitians who came here years ago after earthquakes ravaged their countries.

The Migration Policy Institute lists 2,000 Salvadoran immigrants living in Alabama, and about 40 Salvadoran students are in the Jefferson County school system. Haitians have been settling in north Alabama in recent years as well, but the Policy Institute does not have specific numbers.

On a recent afternoon, it seemed like business as usual in the corridors and 13 classrooms at Lipscomb Elementary School. Valtierra calls Lipscomb one of the county system’s “best-kept secrets,” and four-year principal Reta Hayes says Lipscomb’s academic and welcoming reputation has prompted Hispanic families from elsewhere in the area to move to its attendance zone and enroll their children.

Teacher Stephanie Kidd with some of the fourth- and fifth-graders in her project-based learning class at Lipscomb Elementary School.

“It’s not just about education,” Hayes said. “It’s the whole package they’re looking for.”

Mary Downey, the school’s part-time ESL teacher, said Trump’s election in 2016 had a “chilling effect” on some of the students with whom she was working at Fultondale and Center Point high schools.

“They were afraid and … it came out in a lot of different ways,” Downey said. But she added that she has not felt that same chill at Lipscomb.

“It’s almost like there’s a safer community here, where there was just a lot more uncertainty in those other schools,” Downey said.

Miyoko Kelley, who is Lipscomb’s full-time ESL teacher as well as a translator and confidant to its Hispanic students, said she was student-teaching in Shelby County when HB 56 passed, “and that really created a very scary situation.”

“Most of the ELs (English learners) did not show up to school,” Kelley said

“But during the four years that I’ve been here … and having gone through different immigration situations, I don’t think our parents are as affected as much by (the immigration controversies),” Kelley added.

Nonetheless, Hayes said her students have not been totally immune from immigration anxieties.

“I do think the kids had that mindset (that) if it wasn’t that they were leaving, they were afraid that their parents were not going to be here anymore,” Hayes said, “… and a majority of them could come and communicate with Ms. Kelley, Ms. Downey and our counselor, Ms. (Celeste) Martin. I mean, it was a concern and we just had to assure them that they were fine, everything was going to continue to go on just like normal, and they’re at Lipscomb and we’re going to have a happy day and learn.”

Tom Gordon is a graduate of the University of Alabama and the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He has been a reporter and editor at The Birmingham News and The Anniston Star.