Posted on December 5, 2022

Racist Rhetoric Greets Increasing Population of Latino Students in This Tennessee County

Nicole Chavez, CNN, December 3, 2022


In the months since a Hamilton County Schools school board member suggested the rising number of Latino students who speak little to no English were overwhelming schools, several activists and educators who spoke with CNN said they received anti-immigrant, racist and hateful messages after condemning the remarks.

In this county near the Tennessee-Georgia border, the growth in the Hispanic or Latino population has outpaced the national average. In the past decade, the number of residents who identified as Hispanic or Latino rose nearly 81% or more than 12,000 people, compared to 23% nationwide, according to US Census data.

While the county’s more than 366,000 residents largely identify as White and about 7.4% identified as Hispanic or Latino in the 2020 Census, their presence has pushed a community with a dark racial history to face the inequalities that persist and adapt to a new normal that goes beyond the fractured Black-White paradigm that has characterized the South for a long time.

Although there are ongoing efforts by the city and school officials to better serve Latino families, the demographic shift has also come with reminders of how heavily divided this region is and the fact that many Latinos live afraid of authorities because of their current or past immigration status.

In an interview with The Chattanoogan in late August, Rhonda Thurman suggested the rising number of Latino students who speak little to no English were overwhelming schools. Thurman is a long-time board member representing schools with a majority White student population. She is known for her conservative views as well as her stance on books that have been deemed “inappropriate” for children by some or labeled “critical race theory.”

“It is mind-boggling to me the burden it puts on the schools, the teachers and the taxpayers,” Thurman told the newspaper about the number of Latino students.

“Teachers tell me they cannot give the attention they deserve to the English-speaking students because they have to devote so much time to try to help the Hispanic students catch up,” she said according to the newspaper.


The Hamilton County Schools district comprises 76 institutions and serves 45,000 students. About 19% of students, or 8,702, are Hispanic but not all of them have limited English proficiency.

There are 5,039 students considered English Language Learners currently enrolled, data shows. Diego Trujillo, director of the district’s English as a New Language Program, said Spanish is the top language for ELL but students speak more than 100 different languages, including Arabic, Mandarin, Vietnamese and five Mayan dialects.


Semillas, a non-profit group focused on racial and educational justice for the Latino community, has called for Thurman’s resignation and for a new task force to create an action plan that would better support the needs of Latino students and parents. Their online petition has garnered nearly 1,400 signatures.


Taylor Lyons, co-founder of the local parent group Moms for Social Justice, said negativity toward Hispanic students is just the latest in a list of “hot button” issues that have been the focus of conservatives who live in the county. Over the past several years, Lyons said, conservatives have flooded school board meetings to fight mask and Covid-19 vaccine mandates as well as books in school libraries, which made her group subject of threats and accusations. In 2018, Moms for Social Justice launched an initiative to help teachers stock classrooms with books.

“What it tells us is that you have a small but very loud minority of extremists, who are very uncomfortable with the cultural change around them. They’re uncomfortable with the demographic change,” Lyons said.


In Chattanooga, the county seat that largely touts itself as progressive, residents are seeing the demographic shift manifest itself in many aspects of their lives.


The Howard School is the largest high school in the county and one of 10 schools in the district where Hispanic students surpass the number of students of any other racial or ethnic group. The number of English Language Learners at those schools this year represents 56% of all ELL students in the district.

For decades, the school was known for predominantly serving Black students, but enrollment data shows that at least half of the student body has been Hispanic in the past five school years.

At the start of the day, students listen to Assistant Principal Charles Mitchell read announcements in English and then in Spanish. The tradition, which began five years ago and required him to learn a new language, is one of the many ways “we go beyond our means just to include everybody,” Mitchell said.


About two miles east of the high school, teacher Amanda Edens and her fifth-grade students at East Side Elementary finished reading “Esperanza Rising” by Pam Muñoz Ryan, a novel about a young girl who flees Mexico and settles in a farm camp in California.

Edens, whose Spanish is limited, said she used the book to teach her students the curriculum while also connecting with them. They are mostly Hispanic, she said, and they enjoyed giggling every time she pronounced the Spanish phrases and words scattered throughout the book.

The 37-year-old teacher is facing the challenging task of navigating a state law that requires public schools to teach only in English and serving a fast-growing number of students who are not fluent in the language.


At the elementary school, English as a New Language teachers “push in” or join the general education classes and work with small groups to reduce the time the students are away from their classroom. {snip}

Andrea Bass, one of the ENL teachers at East Side Elementary, said the school staff respects and actively honors their students’ first language and culture. Many of the students are from Guatemala, and their families, who speak Spanish or Mayan dialects, are constantly engaged in their education despite the language barriers, she said.

When Edens, Bass and other teachers heard their students might have been referred to as a burden, they signed a letter calling the remarks “offensive to those students, their families, and those of us who teach them.”


Not much has changed for the increasing number of Latino families in the county, many who relocated from the neighboring state of Georgia after a state law that authorized police to investigate the immigration status and arrest undocumented immigrants went into effect in 2011. But city and school officials have launched initiatives in the past year hoping to address their needs.

The city created the Office of New Americans last year to connect immigrant and refugee communities with city resources, including translation services and helping them with citizenship and naturalization paperwork.

“It’s a way to make sure that we are empowering the people who are coming to Chattanooga and empowering our immigrant community to really be able to flourish,” said Esai Navarro, the office’s director.

Navarro said the key is “emphasizing inclusion versus assimilation.”

Meanwhile, the school district opened its International Welcome Center to assist international students with enrollment and connect them with support services. The center has helped 224 families since it opened last year.