Percentage of Eagle County’s foreign-born residents quintuples since 1980
By the numbers
• 6.22 percent: U.S. foreign-born population in 1980
• 13.8 percent: U.S. foreign-born population in 2015
• 4 percent: Eagle County foreign-born population in 1980.
• 19 percent: Eagle County foreign-born population in 2015.
EAGLE COUNTY — A lot has changed here since 1980. The population has more than quadrupled in the past 37 years. Who makes up that population has also shifted significantly.
Pansop, a recently-started, New York-based data analysis firm, has been crunching data from the U.S. Census Bureau, focusing at the moment on the percentage of foreign-born residents living in the United States. That number-crunching has found that since 1980, Eagle County has shown the nation’s 13th-largest increase in the percentage of foreign-born residents.
Kevin Pryor, of Pansop, said the young company is starting its work by using Census Bureau data on population trends.
“We’re looking at things that interest people,” Pryor said. Looking at the increase in foreign-born populations is part of that work.
The Eagle County data is indeed interesting.
The 1980 Census determined that simply 4 percent of the county’s 13,320 residents had been born outside of the United States — 532 people. By 2015, 19 percent of the county’s 53,000 residents were foreign-born. That works out to more than 10,000 people.
A wave of new residents
The reasons for the influx are varied, but mostly reflect the need for employees in construction, lodging and other industries.
John Brendza, a former Eagle County Schools teacher and former district superintendent, is now retired. Brendza was a science teacher at Minturn Middle School in the early to mid-1980s when the first wave of immigrant families started sending their children to school.
Brendza recalled that at the time, most immigrant families in the upper valley were from Europe. The kids may have spoken other languages, but were usually fluent in English, too. These kids were different, Brendza said: bright, and eager to learn, but hampered by a formidable language barrier.
At the time, there were few people in the district who spoke Spanish fluently enough to translate, and few resources for those students to use in their studies.
Brendza asked Glen Gallegos, then the principal at Minturn Middle, for permission to buy some Spanish-language science textbooks.
Brendza, who acknowledged his Spanish skills at the time were limited, at best, sat down with the kids and worked on lessons.
“I remember them laughing at my accented Spanish,” he said.
Over the past 30-plus years, the number of children of immigrants has grown, and more quickly than the immigrant population overall.
In an email, district spokeswoman Tammy Schiff wrote that in the district today, 44 percent of all students speak a language other than English in the home. While that in-home language is predominantly Spanish, Schiff wrote there are children of immigrants from Nepal, Russia, China and Korea, among other countries.
Along with the increase in the overall number of students, working to educate those learning English along with other studies has been a big change for the district.
As an educator, teaching language-learners “has become an important part of everything we do,” Brendza said.
Those changes have come in both public schools, where the job is to educate every child who walks in the doors, and in what Brendza calls “schools of choice” — private, parochial and charter schools.
There are more children coming into those schools, and those schools have had to adapt. Many of those changes have been for the better, he said.
After he left Eagle County Schools, Brendza for a time was the head of Stone Creek Charter School. That school moved in the past few years from the upper valley to Gypsum.
There, he said “we saw such diversity coming into the school. It’s been a wonderful place for them to be part of the community.”
Brendza is the son of immigrants, and is himself a naturalized citizen. He believes foreign-born residents, and their children, like immigrants before them, benefit the nation and it’s culture.
“There’s a real richness immigrants bring to the country,” he said.
“This is a celebration of all our veterans have done for us,” said Pat Hammon with the local VFW Post, who served as a nurse in Vietnam. “It’s not a time for sadness.”