Frisco ISD holds on to small schools model despite fast enrollment growth

Editor's note: The original version of this story included an incorrect number of students enrolled in Frisco ISD this year. The story has been updated to reflect the correct number.

So far this school year, Frisco ISD has enrolled about 1,000 students fewer than the projected student enrollment for the 2016-17 school year, according to data from Population and Survey Analysts, the district’s demographics firm.

Kris Pool, PASA chief data analyst, said a couple of reasons are behind the slow pace in enrollment.

“Students didn’t occupy as many new homes as we expected,” Pool said. “Also, what we’re starting to see is the number of students
in existing homes is not increasing. It also seems that a lot of families are continuing to go further out into more rural cities.”

Despite the slowed enrollment, FISD is still the fastest growing school district in Texas, according to PASA’s latest report. As such, FISD is facing the challenge of making up for shrinking state funds while still managing the small schools model.

FISD has decided to delay the opening of four new schools­— Memorial High School, Lawler Middle School and Talley and Liscano elementary schools—to make up $15 million of a $30 million state funding shortfall in the 2017-18 budget.

Superintendent Jeremy Lyon said the delay also allows the district time to monitor the district’s growth and to determine whether the enrollment downturn this year is a trend or a one-time blip.

Despite fast growth and budget constraints, FISD will continue to implement the small schools model that has contributed to the district’s success and high enrollment, Lyon said.

“The commitment to the small schools model has never been stronger and it’s a very important piece of our strategic plan,” Lyon said. “The small schools model to me is all about relationships with students.”

District growth

When Debbie Pasha and her husband were planning to move back to the Dallas area 15 years ago, they were looking to see which cities were the best to settle in with their 5-year-old son. A friend of hers, who was a former educator in the area, told her she needed to go to Frisco.

“She told me that FISD’s concept of the small schools model was excellent, so from an outsider looking in hearing that from someone that was in the profession gave me a lot of solace and confidence in where we were going to move,” Pasha said.

Frisco ISD holds on to small schools model despite fast enrollment growthFISD’s popularity with families like the Pashas has led to the district’s fast growth, but eventually the district will stop growing at such a rapid pace, said Todd Fouche, deputy superintendent of business services.

However, he said just because a school district stops growing, it does not mean that enrollment numbers drop once the district is built out. Fouche said the enrollment numbers of surrounding school districts that are built out have never dropped.

According to PASA, at build-out using the small schools model, FISD will need about 99 schools. FISD currently has 68 schools open, four schools under construction and four schools planned, which would bring the total number to 76 schools when those schools open.

As the city gets closer to build out, Lyon said he does not know whether the district will need more or fewer than the 99 schools currently projected, but the number is representative of just how fast the district is growing.

“Frisco is built to last, and it’s built as a community to stay with this kind of profile for decades; so we’re not going anywhere over the next 50-100 years,” Lyon said. “So we have a long way to go on this journey.”

Model challenges

Part of FISD’s five-year strategic plan, which was implemented last year, is building strategies that affirm support and align resources for the small schools model.

Lyon said the small schools model is almost like a business plan that puts a premium on programs, classrooms, schools and activities that are all facilitating student engagement and involvement.

To achieve this, FISD has to build more schools. This means that as the district continues to grow, more students have to be rezoned to offer as many opportunities to as many students as possible.

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“It’s a challenge because it requires a lot of building and a lot of program uniformity,” Lyon said. “To make sure that every kid has that opportunity requires us to duplicate good programs across the district. And that’s also another driving force of the small schools model that it doesn’t matter what school you’re going to, you are going to have the same depth and breadth of opportunity in any of our schools.”

For the fastest-growing school district in Texas, rezoning is not a new concept. Since the school district began opening new schools 20 years ago, they have rezoned every year for the purpose of maintaining the small schools model.

“[The small schools model] was the absolute benchmark of the school district planning when the growth took off in the mid-90s,” Lyon said. “This was a conscious decision with city leaders and school district leaders who said they wanted to retain the small town feel within our community regardless of how big we get. And the small schools model is the direct commitment of that conscious decision.”

Frisco ISD holds on to small schools model despite fast enrollment growthModel sustainability

Fouche said the district is always looking at the small schools model and feels like it is able to sustain the model.

Fouche said the district balances the costs of the small schools model.

Some facets of a small schools model will cost more. For example, a school district with two large high schools has to pay the salaries of only two principals, whereas FISD pays a principal for each of the nine high schools.

“There’s obvious things that may seem to cost more because of the small schools model, but I think we’re doing some other things well to keep the cost down,” Fouche said.

Fouche said the district has been frugal about spending outside of campuses and keep some departments running as lean as possible.

The district also strives to enhance energy efficiency to reduce costs at each FISD campus.

The district builds cost-effective schools through design and construction practices.

For example, the district has utilized geothermal heat pump systems and energy recovery ventilation in all facilities opening after 2003. These systems use less energy and are cheaper to maintain than traditional HVAC systems.

“We don’t see ourselves as much different as other school districts,” Fouche said. “[The small schools model is] something we’ll continue to look at and continue to determine what’s best for the students, but I think all in all [the model] is sustaining itself well.”

Lyon said keeping the small schools model comes down to what the community wants, and if the community expresses support and desire to keep it, FISD will keep it.

FISD board member Steve Noskin, who is originally from New York and moved to Frisco five years ago, has children in the district and said he believes the community will not want to move away from the model.

“I think it’s ingrained in the community and the board to keep the small schools profile as it is,” Noskin said. “I don’t think anybody is trying to change that and I think that’s what makes Frisco unique by offering students every opportunity to participate.”