Changing demographics, progress achievements mark a new day at Chattanooga's Howard School

·12 min read

Apr. 3—Every morning, the announcements are read twice at the Howard School — once in English and once in Spanish.

"Make the most of your time," Assistant Principal Charles Mitchell reminds students over the intercom.

And once he finishes, he starts again in Spanish.

"Aprovecha al maximo tu tiempo."

While regular instruction itself is conducted in English as per state law, the historically Black school has sought ways in recent years to provide support to its growing Hispanic population.

During the 2009-10 school year, state records show, there were 12 Hispanic students at Howard. By 2020, that number was closer to 600. Administrators estimate that today, Hispanic students make up about 56% of the 1,400 students at the largest high school in Hamilton County.

Executive Principal LeAndrea Ware was a student at Howard in the late 1980s and early '90s, when she said the population was closer to being almost 100% Black students, but she said today is a new day for the school and integrating the language into the everyday life of Howard is about providing community to students and families alike.

"We know the state of Tennessee expects us to teach our students in English. But let's be honest. When you're trying to collaborate with parents who don't speak English, our job is to embrace them, connect with them and empower them to help us do the best that we can do for their students," she said in an in-person interview with the Times Free Press.

English language learners coach Jose Otero has been at the school for four years, and he has seen the demographics and the culture shift, but he said today's students probably haven't noticed much.

This generation of Howard students, he said, have been in classrooms with mostly Black and brown faces since going to elementary and middle schools that feed into Howard that have also seen their own demographic changes.

"The majority of Black students here, they know more Spanish than you'd think because they're around it so much," Otero said in an in-person interview. "It's really cool to see how it's no longer something different. It's just, that's how it is."

The surge in Hispanic residents is happening across the county as census data show an 80.6% spike from 2010 to 2020. Hamilton County Schools was 5.6% Hispanic during the 2009-2010 school year and 17% in 2020-2021.

Howard has also hired a number of bilingual staff, from front desk workers to teachers and administrators.

"No. 1, what's important to us is that they are quality people who love and care about children," Ware said. "But if we can do that, and then also have some diversity — we have males and we have females and we have, you know, African-Americans, we have Latinos, we have Caucasians [to be] diversified in our faculty and our staff to try to look like the families that we serve."

LA CULTURA: THE CULTURE

Acknowledging and including the cultures of students goes beyond just the announcements each day.

The school's main field is known as the "Tiger Den" and "La Guarida de los Tigres." Hand-drawn signs in the halls read both "The Tiger Way" and "El Camino del Tigre" — reminding students to be ready, be responsible and be respectful.

"We're trying to show our students that this school also belongs to you," Otero said. "And whenever a student comes to a school and they see a sign of a school, of an important building in the school, and they see [it] in English and in Spanish, that equals 'hope.' It equals 'I belong.' It equals 'I am a part of something.'"

Parent and literacy nights feature traditional American and Hispanic foods. Social media posts and automated calls are also all in both languages.

"It's about uniting and making a new culture," Otero said. "So, whenever we do have a parent night, we're also going to have some Guatemalan, Hispanic culture, things along with it, to make it seem like a part of it, not actually separate them, but do it together. And I think the Black kids really enjoy to try new candies and new drinks and new treats.

"And the Hispanic kids, they also like to have, you know, traditional American food as well and try new things. So I think it's a symbiotic relationship, where they learn from each other and they grow with each other."

For senior Waltkia Clay, going to Howard has exposed her to new people, backgrounds and ideas.

"I'm learning about different stories, different love, different family, [and] building new relationships and it's a great thing," she said during an award ceremony for the school.

But the cultural shift at Howard is about more than race or ethnicity.

"More than just Black, Latino, all that, we're pushing investment," Mitchell, the assistant principal, said by phone. "We're trying to put our kids in a position to be successful."

Administrators are working to change the negative stigma that some may hold about the school with new behavioral and academic standards.

Much of that change has come through the Tiger Way, which encourages students to be ready, responsible and respectful.

Today, Howard is home to a variety of academic and vocational programs, including multiple Future Ready institutes that promote vocational learning focused on hands-on, real-world experience in subjects like cosmetology, health care and hospitality.

In 2022, the school was the only in the state to receive the Model of Demonstration Gold Level status for school climate, culture and student engagement. It is also considered a Tennessee Level 5 School for academic growth and has seen an increase in parental engagement.

"Some people question, with Howard, having been a primarily African American school, 'How has it changed the culture?'" Ware said. "But you know, the thing I can say, just like we're celebrating here today when we talk about our Tiger Way, that Tiger Way process is what helped us have that consistency across the board.

"I don't care what ethnicity you are, what the culture is, I don't care. We treat everybody with respect. We all learn to be responsible. And we all have to learn to prepare ourselves to be ready in the world."

LOS TIGRES: HUSTLIN' TIGERS

The changing demographics at Howard also extend to sports.

On an unseasonably warm winter day, 30 to 40 students filled the old Reggie White Field, named for one of the school's most prominent Black football players who went on to play in the NFL. They were there for soccer tryouts. Most of the players are Hispanic and Guatemalan, Otero said.

Before the influx of Hispanic students, the school didn't have much of a soccer team. Now the boys' team has been to the state quarterfinals twice and were district champions three times in the past four years.

Otero, who serves as the school's head soccer coach, said Howard has historically been known for its football and basketball programs, but the increase in Hispanic students has helped put the school on the map for soccer as well, which has helped foster respect.

"The community, the alumni, the faculty that don't know much about soccer are getting excited about it, and they come out to the field and they want to see our students play," he said. "Sports is definitely a huge way where kids earn respect. The basketball team goes to state every year. Our soccer team goes to state every year. And it's like, 'Yeah, that's what's up, that's what we do.'"

First-year student Marelys Velasquez is often at practices and games to cheer on her boyfriend. She plays soccer for the girls' team, which plays in the fall, and said the players on the boys' team were humble but competitive. For her, soccer is like therapy and gets her out of the house, and watching her classmates balance sports and everyday life has been inspirational and helps her feel more connected to the school.

"I love school because it feels like a team, like you do everything all together," she said during tryouts. "Seeing people do this and that just gives you motivation. Like right now you see them grind I want to be like them.

"They're living life and at the same time working, at the same time playing what they want, doing what they want. Because of soccer, they get their grades up. That's what I did, too."

And regardless of background, Otero said students are starting to try new sports that they maybe weren't as culturally exposed to as kids.

"Hispanic kids are starting to dabble in basketball a little bit, then the Black kids want to play soccer a little bit, and that's all about learning from each other's culture, and sharing and learning and growing to be part of it," he said.

LA COMUNIDAD: COMMUNITY

According to the administrators, a major driver of the increased Hispanic population comes from immigration, namely migrants from Guatemala. Many of these students end up at Howard and its feeder schools like East Lake Academy and Clifton Hills Elementary, as families seek jobs and affordable housing in that portion of Hamilton County.

Clifton Hills has gone from 23.5% Hispanic students to 69.3% from the 2009-10 to the 2020-21 school year. East Lake has gone from 26.6% to 78.8%.

Some of the students who come into the country have only been educated for a few years, as schooling is only free for six years in Guatemala. After going through an immigration process, many come to stay with family that is already present in Hamilton County. This includes families like Velasquez's, whose cousin from Guatemala recently moved in.

"I know that's probably a huge conversation politically in the world," Ware said. "But they are our students here. I don't have time for politics here. They deserve to be loved, they deserve to be taught, they deserve to be educated and treated as valuable students here at Howard School. They help to make us who we are."

For those students, Howard has a program called NewComers, where students receive specialized instruction to help them adjust to life and education in the United States, while balancing their unique concerns.

"I had a student that brought it home for me. He said, 'Dr. Ware, I cannot send a diploma home to my family in Guatemala to eat," she said. "'I have to work. I have to be able to make money.'"

So the school worked to find non-traditional ways to allow students to take care of needs at home and see the value in staying at school, including specialized training for teachers, paid work-based learning opportunities and a transition academy that provided flexible instruction outside of the normal 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. school day for students who needed to work. Many of these techniques have also helped other students who may be struggling, not just NewComers.

And as outside community demographics shift to include more Hispanic residents, many organizations and leaders in the area have reached out to the school to provide support. Otero said he helps facilitate a gathering of local Hispanic leaders called Los Amigos.

"Our administration here[has] done a phenomenal job by making sure that this takes place, that students feel like this is my school, I belong here," Otero said. "And the community and the alumni have done a great job by welcoming these students, as well."

Silverdale Baptist local missions pastor Gus Hernandez has helped translate for parent-teacher conferences and the church has sponsored meals and signs for the school.

"Howard is a special school for us," he said. "Our church loves this school, what they're doing in the community The kids are really getting prepared, to be good citizens in the community and then, I think, you know, not only the church, I think the whole community, that's what they really want, to see the kids succeed."

EL FUTURO: THE FUTURE

As Ware looks to the future of Howard, she sees continual growth fed by increased immigration at what is already the largest high school in Hamilton County and is looking for answers, like possible expansion, to continue to support students each day for years to come.

She said Howard is expecting to net about 200 new students for 2021-22 alone, putting them closer to 1,450 by the end of the school year. There were about 900 when Ware first arrived as principal in 2018.

"It's just not sustainable. I mean, it is if the resources and the support and the funding and the training, you know, increases along with that growth. But if not, then, you know, we're going to be even more packed in here like sardines, trying to figure out a way to have an environment conducive for learning," she said. "We're going to continue to show up every day and give 210% for our kids [But we need to figure out] how do we address this in a manner that's going to allow us, the Howard School, to continue to expand and grow and build on all these amazing programs."

Velasquez said she would be interested in more opportunities and Future Ready Institutes at the school, in addition to ones already on the campus. She would also appreciate more parking and larger classrooms, although she knows her teachers are trying their best.

She doesn't always love having to go to school each day, but hopes to one day "change the world" and find what she loves to do while at Howard.

"I don't know what I want to do, but I want to find out what I want to do with what I'm best at," she said.

Regardless of what the future holds, Ware hopes that the school will be able to continue fulfilling its mission — being there for its students and their success.

"We want our kids to know that we're very proud of them," Ware said. "If no one else sees them, we do and we appreciate them."

And to community members and those who may hold a stigma about the school, the administrators invite them to come and see Howard for themselves and experience the Tiger Way.

"We say, 'miracles on Market Street.' It's not some grandiose thunderbolt and lightning in the sky, but it's just seeing lives change every day. Those are very wonderful miracles to watch in action," she said.

Contact Tierra Hayes at thayes@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6693. Follow her on Twitter @TierraBHayes.