A change in Central Austin demographics could be a major factor in the projected loss of Austin ISD students for many area schools.

Multiple Central Austin schools losing students AISD Central Austin enrollment[/caption]

More families are moving out of the Central Austin area, child birth rates have decreased and more charter schools are opening, all resulting in a projected student population decrease, said Beth Wilson, assistant director of AISD Planning Services. Enrollment increased steadily by about 1 percent each year from 2003-12—equivalent to 800 to 1,000 students each year, she said.

“That is highly unusual for an urban school district of this size,” Wilson said. “We were in an anomaly period; it just felt like normal to us because it had been going on for so long.”

That increase stopped in the 2013-14 school year when a trend of enrollment decreases started, a trend Wilson said is likely to continue until 2018.

“We’re now starting to behave more like what the rest of Texas’ urban school districts of this size behave like. By that I mean in the central urban core we’re losing kids,” Wilson said. “We’re squeezing in the middle [of the district], and we’re now seeing population growth in the far reaches of our district.”

The projected student population numbers are based on Austin historical trends and residents currently living in Austin. The school district’s data cannot accurately account for families moving in or out of Austin or whether a child might transfer to a school for which he or she is not zoned, Wilson said.

Factors influencing families

Between 2007 and 2011 the recession put a strain on many families and adults, Wilson said, causing them to make different life choices—including family planning. The birth rate decreased during those years, meaning there are fewer children to enroll in schools, Wilson said.

Although birth rates appear to be back on the rise, adults in their 20s and 30s are waiting longer to have children than prior generations, a trend that is also affecting enrollment, Wilson said. Data suggests the lowest year for enrollment will be 2018, followed by years of anticipated gradual increase. However, AISD is still projected to lose 4,000 students by 2025, she said.

Families with children have also left the city’s central core to find more affordable housing options, said Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, a trend Austin City Council has monitored since 2003.
“The city has been looking at strategies for preserving our existing affordable housing, and we need to continue to strengthen [those efforts],” Tovo said.

Most of the new Central Austin housing stock is not appealing to families, she said, especially with the increase in efficiency dwellings and one-bedroom apartments.

“We need to figure out how to encourage developers in this market to think about how to design spaces that would appeal to families and children,” Tovo said. “A lot of the multifamily housing that’s getting constructed has units that may be large, but they’re not really configured in a way that would appeal to families with children.”

Other education options

Families choosing to remain in Central Austin have options other than the school they are assigned by AISD, resulting in a further enrollment decrease.

Charter schools are not in the AISD system but are created by the Legislature and receive state funding. These schools do not charge families tuition or fees for attendance, said David Dunn, executive director of the Texas Charter Schools Association.

“When the state approves the charter they approve the grades, the geographic boundary they can draw from and the total number of students that can attend the charter,” Dunn said. “They accept anyone and everyone. If applications exceed approved capacity then they have a lottery.”

Charter schools do not have to hire certified teachers and are offered more flexibility in their school calendar, curriculum, hours of the school day and discipline methods, Dunn said.

“The state of Texas believes that parents ought to have options,” Dunn said. “If you want a new cell phone, you’ve got options. … So why is education any different?”

The charter school option has impacted enrollment numbers at AISD’s Zavala Elementary School, said Sean Fox, the school’s principal. Enrollment at his East Austin school has decreased by 100 students since 2006, and the neighborhood demographics around Zavala do not reflect what Fox sees in his hallways each day, he said.

“We’ve seen a change in the community, but we haven’t seen the change reflected in our enrollment at all. Our percentage of students with free or reduced lunch hasn’t changed,” Fox said. “If people are moving in the area that have more money or are Anglo, why wouldn’t we see an immediate reflection in our enrollment demographics?”

Fox said he attempts to fight gentrification and school transfers by bonding together school staff and parents to tout the education opportunities offered at Zavala. He is also considering partnering with middle schools and high schools that Zavala students later attend to create programs that emphasize science, technology, engineering, arts and math, or STEAM, programs. Creating a STEAM initiative could help his currently underenrolled school attract more students, Fox said.

Some parents may choose to transfer their students to schools outside their attendance zone because a school may be closer to the parent’s job or has a more desirable sports program, Wilson said. She said AISD has a relaxed transfer policy, which does affect enrollment numbers.

Stress on schools

Schools not face challenges not only from overenrollment but also from not having enough students. The amount of funds a school receives from the state is determined by how many students the school serves, AISD Chief Financial Officer Nicole Conley said. AISD schools currently do not receive the amount of funding needed to keep their diverse programs alive or pay teachers a competitive salary, she said.

Closing some schools to cut costs is not likely because the population and demographics could change in the next few years, and the schools could be needed, Conley said.

A school closure could also negatively impact the community, Tovo said.

“Having that system of neighborhood schools within those central city neighborhoods has all kinds of really positive effects,” Tovo said. “People walk their children to school; they’re more involved because they live close by that school. It’s really critical to me to keep those neighborhood schools open and vital.”

Schools with low enrollment could rent out areas of their building no longer being used to help increase their funding, she said. After-school programs and banks have shared spaces with schools before, Tovo said.

The school district is also closely monitoring the ongoing legislative session, which could result in more funding coming to AISD schools and teachers, Conley said.