Recent data released by the Alabama State Department of Education has revealed Walker County and Jasper City schools are both somewhat on trend with state enrollment data, and the school systems are …
Recent data released by the Alabama State Department of Education has revealed Walker County and Jasper City schools are both somewhat on trend with state enrollment data, and the school systems are striving to provide a strong, quality education for a growing number of Hispanic students.
A report from Al.com on Dec. 2 stated public school enrollment is continuing to decline statewide, while Hispanic enrollment in Alabama is at an all-time high.
According to data on the state Department of Education's website, there has been little change in overall enrollment for Jasper City Schools over the past 20 years. In comparing the 1995-96 and 2018-19 school years, the school system has actually gained 143 students, for a total of 2,688 enrolled.
The most significant change in Jasper City Schools has been an enrollment increase of Hispanic students. Until 1999, there were virtually no Hispanic pupils enrolled in the school district. Hispanic enrollment fluctuated over the next several years, and by 2013-14, there were over 100 Hispanic students enrolled in Jasper City Schools.
Now, four years later, the number has spiked to 309.
"Our schools and our students have been very open to helping these students adjust. We know that it must be extremely terrifying for students to come to school not knowing how to communicate with anyone and having no one that can communicate with you in your language," Jasper City Schools Superintendent Dr. Ann Jackson said. "At the end of the day, they are children, and it is our job to educate them and make them feel loved and welcomed. Our teachers and students do a great job of that."
EL (English learner) instructors are assigned to serve Hispanic students at each city school, and a Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol is also helping students master English using visual aids and objects for instruction.
Many teachers in the school system have also received professional development to better serve EL students.
Jackson said a special focus has been placed on keeping the entire student body actively engaged by focusing on arts, academics and athletics, along with expanding career technical education.
"If we can engage kids and find niches for them — if a kid can connect in some area — they're more likely to stay engaged in school and graduate," Jackson said.
Data for Walker County Schools shows a decline in enrollment of 1,915 students since the 1995-96 school year. In 1997-98, enrollment slowly started to decline; however, some years actually saw a gain in enrollment. It wasn't until the 2009-10 school year that enrollment started to decline each consecutive year by roughly 100 to 200 students.
There are now 7,116 students enrolled in Walker County Schools.
The school system has, however, seen an increase in Hispanic enrollment, especially in the past four years. There are now 213 Hispanic students enrolled in the school system.
The majority of Hispanic students are enrolled at Valley Jr. High School, according to Walker County Schools Interim Superintendent Dr. Joel Hagood, who will be sworn in as the new elected superintendent next month.
Eighty-four Hispanic students are active English language learners, while others who have successful received EL instruction are monitored to ensure success. EL students are served by an EL coach that travels to all schools as needed.
Hagood explained a number of reasons why he believes general enrollment has declined. He said some students may have parents who have had to move out of Walker County for work, and the rise of virtual schools and home schooling may also play a factor. Poverty is also part of the equation, he said.
In terms or retaining students, Hagood said the school system is focusing on offering a variety or clubs and organizations at each school to keep students who don't participate in athletics involved, and, above all, schools are working to help students realize they have a support system.
"Kids need to feel safe at school. We want them to get a good meal at school ... and be in a loving and nurturing environment," he said. "Those are basic needs that all of us have, and if we strive to meet that — to where they look forward to coming to school — that plays a huge roll."
Both Jasper City and Walker County schools' students have been taking advantage of the Hope and Twilight program that provides alternate hours for students in varying situations to attend school, which has helped retain students. Additionally, both school districts continually add to their career technical program offerings to help students prepare for life after high school.
To help serve Hispanic students, particularly, both school districts referenced Newcomer High School, a program housed in the old Walker High School (shared by Jasper City and Walker County schools). Newcomer is for Hispanic students entering high school for the first time to learn English and math skills. The program allows students the ability to acclimate to a new learning environment and new cultural surroundings.
Hagood and Jackson said thinking outside the box is going to be key in keeping students engaged and strengthening both school systems.
"It's all connected. You see all these great programs going on around the county with Jasper Main Street and the We Can initiative in the county. What do you think is one of the first things a perspective business or industry coming in looks at? It's the educational system," Hagood said. "We play a huge role in their success and vice versa, and we're all working together to try to make Walker County better. I think that's the big picture."