An even bigger wave of kids is coming.
The last decade has seen an explosion of expansion in near northwest Houston, where the population is increasing and becoming increasingly younger. The area is a hotspot for young professionals and growing families, whose kids fill the classrooms at schools such as Oak Forest Elementary, Garden Oaks Montessori Magnet, Hamilton Middle School and Heights High School.
Candlelight Oaks resident Tim Weltin, a Houston ISD employee who has two children attending area schools, wonders how the district will handle all the area kids who have yet to reach school age.
“There’s been a very large boom in children who are 6 and under,” Weltin said. “The big question is, ‘How do all these campuses and principals use their space in the coming school years?’ At some point, they’ll just run out of space. … What do you do?”
According to two HISD administrators and a school board member who serves part of the area, the answer is – nothing yet. The largest public school district in Texas is more concerned with funding shortfalls, its superintendent search, an ongoing investigation into the district by the Texas Education Agency and the threat of a TEA takeover of its school board if four underperforming campuses do not meet state academic requirements this year.
And while HISD enrollment figures, obtained through an open-records request, show that nine area schools are operating above or near capacity, there are more campuses with plenty of classroom space (see the accompanying graphics for breakdowns of enrollment and capacities at area schools within HISD, which offers out-of-zone transfer options to all of its 200,000-plus students).
District leaders said there are no plans to build more schools in the area, where 19 campuses saw dips in enrollment between October and February. They are more worried about balancing enrollment at existing schools and making campus-to-campus offerings more equitable, with a proposal to overhaul the district’s longstanding magnet program set to go before the board later this school year. HISD has seen a decline in overall enrollment in recent years, so attracting and retaining students is another priority.
School board member Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who represents an area that includes Oak Forest, said crowded campuses are welcomed, not problematic.
“It’s not a major concern for anyone,” she said. “We have a budget crisis that takes precedence right now.”
Priorities differ for area families with young children, who want their kids to receive the best possible education at the lowest possible cost. And if their preferred HISD campus does not have room to accommodate them – which would force them to another school in the district – they could opt for another school district, a charter school or private school.
St. Rose of Lima Catholic School principal Bernadette Drabek, whose Garden Oaks campus has seen a steady increase in enrollment in the last decade, said its chief competitor is not another private school but Oak Forest Elementary. She said many families zoned to Oak Forest over the years have gone to St. Rose of Lima for preschool and then transferred to their neighborhood HISD campus.
Oak Forest is among the most sought-after, and most overcrowded, public schools in the area. Its February enrollment of 860 students was 120 above capacity, with the campus maximizing its space and staff in order to serve them.
Jorge Arredondo, HISD’s area superintendent for the northwest part of the district, said incoming families in Oak Forest’s attendance zone would still be able to go there. But space is increasingly limited for transfers, even those seeking to join the school’s Vanguard program for gifted and talented students.
Justin Fuentes, an assistant superintendent who works in HISD’s Office of School Choice, said that’s the result of an increasing population of zoned students, who have priority. Last year, Fuentes said Oak Forest accepted fewer than 20 new students for its Vanguard program.
“If they leave here because they can’t afford it, they want to go to Oak Forest,” Drabek said. “They don’t want to go to a different school. They don’t want to go to Durham. They don’t want to go to Stevens. They said it’s a better school.”
Oak Forest Elementary is popular in part because it’s in a heavily populated, affluent area that is considered safe and conducive for learning. It also has a reputation for giving kids a solid educational foundation.
The TEA gave the school an overall scaled score of 93 for the 2017-18 school year, making Oak Forest one of the highest-rated elementaries in the area. Only Field (95) and Harvard (94) in the Heights received better scores.
“We’re a really good school, and we’re proud of what we have,” Oak Forest principal Andrew Casler said.
Stevens Elementary, situated a few blocks to the west, feels much the same way about itself. It received an overall score of 81 from the TEA and measured especially well in student progress.
But its enrollment status and demographics are markedly different, with Stevens having room for nearly 250 more students. Whereas less than 24 percent of Oak Forest’s students are categorized as economically disadvantaged, nearly 93 percent of Stevens’ students fit that description. Stevens also is predominantly Hispanic, while white students outnumber any other ethnic group at Oak Forest.
Weltin is an Oak Forest parent and Stevens’ wraparound resource specialist, a non-academic position he described as a “social worker on steroids.” He said the biggest differences between the two campuses are parental involvement and perception.
“What’s happened is the neighborhood has become very invested in one of the schools, far less so in the other, to the detriment of the neighborhood,” he said. “The good news for the neighborhood is Stevens has been very, very successful in recent times, even without the neighborhood buy-in.”
Arredondo and Fuentes, both former principals in HISD, acknowledged that perception could contribute to the enrollment disparity among area schools. In some cases, there are no correlations between academic performance, socioeconomics, ethnicity and classroom capacity.
Field, for example, is the area’s highest-rated elementary by the TEA and has been nominated for a national Blue Ribbon award for exemplary performance. The school is 85 percent Hispanic, 82.2 percent of its students are economically disadvantaged, and it is 270 students shy of capacity.
Garden Oaks Montessori Magnet, which is 93 students above capacity, is 56 percent Hispanic and 33 percent white. Less than half of its students are economically disadvantaged, and its overall scaled score last year was 77.
Wainwright, which received a score of 70, is one of the area’s least-utilized elementary schools at nearly 400 students below capacity. It also has one of the poorest populations, with nearly 94 percent of its students categorized as economically disadvantaged, and more than 90 percent of its students are Hispanic or African-American.
“If I’m being honest, I think that scares a lot of people,” said Jessi Heiner, a vice president in Wainwright’s parent-teacher association. “I don’t agree with the fear. I don’t think it should scare people, but I think it does. I think there’s a big misconception that the school is only trying to serve the underserved. They’re there to serve everyone. It doesn’t matter.”
HISD employs several strategies for coping with overcrowding, both campuswide and by grade level. Principals project their zoned and transfer populations for upcoming school years, which the district uses to allocate resources for staff and space.
But the projections, made during previous school years, don’t always hold up through the summer.
“There’s no predicting from year to year,” Wainwright principal Christina Oliva said.
Schools can operate above their established capacity by rotating teachers through classrooms, reallocating space and utilizing temporary buildings, among other measures.
At the elementary level, at which Texas law requires schools to have no more than 22 students per teacher in kindergarten through fourth grade, schools can apply for class-size exemptions from the TEA. Among HISD’s 15 elementary schools in the area, nine were granted those waivers this year.
The reason in most cases was “unanticipated growth,” and two of those schools do not have capacity issues on a campuswide level. Wainwright, which is operating at less than 60 percent capacity, received an exemption for its second-grade class. Sinclair, which has room for 160 more students overall, got a waiver for its first-grade class.
When an elementary classroom or campus becomes capped after the start of a school year, overflow students are sent to nearby “hub” campuses. According to HISD, it’s a fluid, case-by-case process that varies from year to year and throughout a given school year.
Wainwright and Memorial are hubs for a group of schools that includes Smith and Stevens. Field is a hub for fellow Heights schools Browning, Harvard, Helms and Travis, while overflow from Oak Forest and Sinclair are sent to Love.
“For parents, I think that’s difficult,” Heiner said. “And so they’re not always happy that they’re at an overflow school.”
How can HISD better serve families’ wants and needs while leveling the playing field from campus to campus? How can it combat cases in which parents’ perception does not necessarily meet reality? How can it change the realities at some of its schools?
Proposed changes to the district’s widespread magnet program, which could be significantly streamlined and condensed, might offer a solution. Fuentes said the magnet program was implemented in 1975 with the goal of promoting diversity after desegregation, but the initiative might have run its course in a district that is now majority Hispanic and less than 9 percent white.
Within a district of school choice, demographics show that HISD campuses are racially and socioeconomically segregated in many cases.
“It’s inequitable as it exists right now,” Skillern-Jones said of the magnet program.
Skillern-Jones also is an advocate of rezoning campuses, which could address enrollment disparities among neighboring schools. Evening them out might be better accomplished by grassroots efforts among school administrators and staff, parents and community members.
Skillern-Jones and Weltin, who in addition to his role at Stevens works as a special projects coordinator at Frank Black Middle School, helped changed the latter school’s fate earlier this decade. Weltin said the campus had fewer than 500 students in 2011 and was under consideration to be sold by HISD, when parents and other campus stakeholders took a renewed interest in the school and helped improve it.
Now Frank Black has more than 1,220 students and is operating at nearly 90 percent capacity. Skillern-Jones and Weltin said a similar transformation is underway at Stevens.
“Parents are our best advocates in terms of being able to go out there and tell their neighbors that my child goes there and I’ve experienced some very positive outcomes,” Arredondo said. “When they go out and do that, I think that’s what will help change the perception.”
Oliva, the Wainwright principal, encouraged families to check out their neighborhood schools firsthand before making judgments about them. So did Heiner, who said parents should not write off a school because of numbers associated with it – test scores, ratings, demographics, etc.
Even if the numbers and face-to-face impressions are unfavorable, Weltin encouraged families to take ownership in their neighborhood schools and work to make them better. That might be the best way to flip a school’s fortune.
It also could be the best way to combat overcrowding at the school down the road.
“One of the things that’s been most frustrating is people think they’re permanent: ‘These schools are like they are. They’re not going to change. I can go to school A. I can’t go to school B,’ ” Weltin said. “That’s absurd. Classrooms are the same. It’s what you make of them. None of these buildings are on Indian burial grounds and cursed.
“It’s not rocket science,” he added. “You invest more time, talent and effort until you make a school into a good school.”