Shifting demographics throughout Texas are being reflected in Williamson County schools at a faster rate than in other districts elsewhere in the state, according to the E3 Alliance, an Austin-based educational research collaboration.
E3 President and Executive Director Susan Dawson said Texas has the fastest-growing student population in the nation, and in Central Texas the student population is growing at twice that of the state.
“That huge growth is important, but equally important is that while [the student population] is growing it’s becoming much more diverse, [including growing numbers of] low-income, Hispanic, Asian and [English language learner, or ELL, students],” Dawson said.
To learn about and address these shifts, educational leaders and researchers came together Oct. 1 at the Community Impact Summit: Focus on Education in Round Rock. Furthermore, area school districts have implemented programs and plans to try to address these challenges and opportunities.
Georgetown ISD Superintendent Fred Brent said at the summit that public education was the best means securing the future for these students.
“If we don’t secure the future, you will have an economic segregation that will turn this state into a third-world country,” he said.
Dawson said demographic groups that have traditionally struggled are growing at a faster rate than the incremental improvements area schools have seen.
“There is a tendency to see headlines and read the paper and think everything is going to hell in handbasket, and that’s not true,” she said. “For most students on most outcomes, we’re incrementally getting better—graduation rates, standardized tests—but we’re being outpaced by the changing demographics.”
Dawson said there is a high correlation between the income in a student’s family and his or her educational outcomes and earnings later in life.
“That’s not true in every case. There are low-income students who achieve at high levels,” she said. “But typically they do not have the same outside opportunities such as hiring tutors or going to museums.”
Furthermore, she said those low performance levels can have continuing negative consequences beyond school.
“The bottom line is people think of Williamson County as being relatively affluent, and that’s not a generalization that’s wrong,” she said. “Williamson County has less than half the poverty rate than other [counties], but it is becoming increasingly low-income and increasingly Hispanic, and that’s either a deficit or something we figure out how to address to build into an economically prosperous future.”
Dawson said one of the most important initiatives school districts can undertake to address the needs of low-income students is to address expectations early. She said many students walking into kindergarten classrooms are not ready on a social or emotional level to learn. [polldaddy poll=9226077]
“We know that pre-K makes a huge difference,” she said. “[Students] are significantly more likely to be ready to succeed if they have access to those early educational services.”
One example of an early education initiative in Williamson County is Hutto ISD. Superintendent Doug Killian said his district is doing everything it can to direct funds to and expand the pre-K program.
Killian said HISD recently implemented an optional three-year graduation plan for high school students. He said the money that would have gone toward educating the students in their fourth year is diverted to the pre-K program.
“That [funding] would have been just a straight loss,” he said. “It would have just been kept in the state coffers and distributed somewhere else.”
Killian said the district gets half funding for students in the pre-K program from the state who are economically disadvantaged or ELL students in the pre-K program.
He said parents can pay for the full day, and the district’s rates are competitive with area day cares.
Dawson said many people see the increasing number of ELL students as a deficit, but it presents an opportunity.
“They can become our bilingual workforce of the future,” she said.
Laura Segers, Round Rock ISD executive director of state and federal programs, said the district’s ELL students come from throughout the world.
“Some of our children come to us as immigrants or first-generation [Americans],” Segers said. “Parents are particularly brought in for our tech sector. We have a linguistic capital of about 81 languages.”
Cara Schwartz, Georgetown ISD executive director of special and federal programs, said the district has consistently seen a rise in the number of ELL students.
“We constantly evaluate our staffing ratios for students, and we are constantly evaluating our programs,” Schwartz said. “We make sure our students who are bilingual have highly qualified teachers to support them in the classroom.”
Segers said research has shown that ELL students in RRISD and elsewhere who excel in the ELL program often outperform their non-ELL peers.
Dawson said schools also need to focus on not just High School graduation rates, but also getting students to post secondary educational opportunities.
“In Texas, our graduation rates have increased steadily over the past seven to eight years,” she said. “If you look at the job market today, that’s not enough. To obtain a living-wage job a student generally has to have some sort of credential beyond high school to be comfortable in the world.”
Dawson said that secondary credential could come from institutions other than universities, such as trade schools or the military.