It didn’t take long for freshman Cindy Jaramillo to realize that life at HHS was going to be far different from the public charter school she’d attended in Nashville.
That school’s student body was 95 percent minority, much of it Hispanic.
“I kind of felt lonely and left out,” Cindy, who is Mexican and a native speaker, said of her first semester at HHS. “I’m not sure what type of people I should hang out with.”
Cindy’s experience is increasingly common. Though still mostly white, HHS is seeing more and more minority students.
The student body went from 2 percent minority in 1988 to 16 percent in 2016, the most recent year for which demographic figures were available from the website SchoolDigger.com.
By one estimate, the minority breakdown of HHS’ 1,500 students this school year is about 10 percent African-American, 5 percent Hispanic and 4 percent Asian or other (Native American, Pacific Islander, etc.), which puts the current minority population at around 19 percent.
The growth in Hispanic students is particularly striking, and sudden. Almost overnight, it seems, the busy hallways include pockets of kids conversing in Spanish.
“In a given semester I’d usually have one or two students who were native speakers in Spanish I that I would encourage to take upper level” classes, said Spanish teacher Jessica de Araujo Jorge. “Now, in a semester, I will have five to 10 in a class.”
Jorge offers a unique perspective. Not only has she taught at HHS for 14 years, she also graduated from the school in 2000.
“When I graduated, I might have graduated with about five or six kids that weren’t Caucasian (white),” she recalled.
As the population has changed at HHS and across the nation, so have people's attitudes nationwide.
“We’ve seen progress,” Jorge said. “People are more diverse and have been embracing diversity, but then you have small groups of people saying ‘Oh no, I don’t like this. I want to go back to the way things were.’”
The trend toward diversity is expected to continue as Middle Tennessee undergoes rapid growth, with the Nashville metropolitan area gaining about 100 people a day, according to U.S. Census figures.
Marci Butler, one of 25 teachers in Sumner County who works with students with limited English language skills, said the demand for the services she and the other ELL (English Language Learners) teachers provide is on the rise.
“Just this past fall we had to add three more teachers and are expecting to add two next year as well,” said Butler, who covers both HHS and Station Camp High.
She has a caseload of 22 students, all but eight of them at HHS.
“The language barrier can definitely make for some challenges,” Butler said. “Classes like chemistry, biology, and English it seems are most difficult. The content is hard and then adding another language … you can imagine. Classes like math where numbers are universal seem to be easier.”
This semester, Butler began a Commando Time class that helps her focus more attention on ELL students and their academic needs.
But academic needs might be easier met than social needs. While HHS has responded to the diversity with offerings like Spanish Club, Hispanic Honors Society, and the School Climate Leadership Team, some say the school can do more.
“I think the school should put more emphasis on celebrating the different cultures present at HHS,” said senior Adrian Selva, treasurer of the Spanish Club.
“Ideas for promoting diversity at our school could be maybe doing clubs for more ethnicities like Asians, African-Americans, or maybe even just a club that could be about all different ethnic backgrounds learning about each other,” Selva said. “I think that would be pretty cool.”
Some high schools offer “culture weeks” or “diversity weeks” where students dress to highlight their ethnicity or showcase ethnic foods, music and games during lunch.
HHS Principal Bob Cotter said he is open to discussions about school climate. "If there is something students would like to propose, then they just need to come sit down and talk with me about their vision."
Jorge said meaningful change takes time, at HHS and across the country.
“People who are uncomfortable will have to speak out until change happens because many people want things to stay the same,” she said. “Real change is slow.”
Story by Yvette Vargas