Based on Frisco ISD student population projections from demographers, rezoning will continue to be necessary to accommodate the influx of students at one of the fastest growing districts in the country.
Throughout the past 15 years, the district has averaged an addition of 2,600 students per year and that growth leaves no choice but to continue building schools and rezoning others to balance the student population, district officials said.
Despite rezoning more than 50 times in Frisco ISD history and averaging rezoning three schools per year for the past 17 years, the opening of Independence High School in August 2014 is creating a district first—rezoning three high schools at one time.
"What's impressive to me as a newcomer to this district, is that the district has rezoned over 50 times," said Superintendent Jeremy Lyon. "If you think about more than 50 rezonings, if the district hadn't gotten it right, you'd see a community up in arms right now, and you don't see that."
The rezoning process for Liberty, Heritage and Centennial high schools to accommodate the opening of Independence began in October. The rezoning process to accommodate four new elementary schools scheduled to open in August 2014 begins Nov. 11.
Frisco ISD encompasses 75.5 square miles. About three quarters of the district is in Frisco, and the rest is spread between Little Elm, McKinney and Plano.
Only 32 percent of the land is undeveloped; the rest is either developed, under development, planned for development or is reserved space, such as for parks.
Of that 32 percent of remaining space, three landowners own close to half, said Richard Wilkinson, deputy superintendent for business services. He has been with the district for 16 years and guided it through much of the building and rezoning efforts.
Wilkinson said the internal demographics team and the outside demographics firm from Austin are projecting 65,000 students by 2020 and 70,000 to 80,000 students when the district is built out, provided development continues on the current track.
But it is the uncertainty of when the remaining 32 percent of district land will be developed and what will be developed on it that keeps the Frisco ISD demographers constantly adjusting.
While the district has projections for the next 10 years, Wilkinson said long-term predictions are hard to make because development plans can change so quickly.
Even within developments, the demographic makeup of the families and the number of children can vary.
City of Frisco zoning changes also come into play, Wilkinson said.
Most of Frisco ISD's new high schools have been able to open as 3A classified schools. Because of student growth, however, officials said it is necessary for Independence to open as a 4A school.
When a high school is opened in an even year, as Independence will be (2014), staff members said it is important to open with ninth grade only or grades nine through 11 because of student opportunity.
"Opening a high school in an even year is in the first year of a UIL realignment and reclassification," district officials said in released information. "If a school has just ninth and 10th graders in an even year, they would not be able to be in a UIL varsity competition district for two years. That means those 10th graders would not get to compete at the varsity level in team sports and activities until their senior year. When a school opens in an odd year with students in grades 9-10, they compete at the varsity level in individual sports but not in team sports the first year, as it is in the second year of a UIL realignment and reclassification. In the second year when they have students in grades 9-11, they begin to compete at the varsity level in team sports."
Liberty, Centennial and Heritage high schools would experience crowding within the next year or two without including 11th grade students at Independence in the first year, Wilkinson said.
Once the zoning boundaries have been approved by the Board of Trustees, the district maintains a strict policy about not allowing transfer requests.
"Once we start making exceptions, where do you stop?" Lyon said. "We are holding on to those tenents of not making exceptions for neighborhoods or groups. It has served the district well. It may sound cold, but it's really not. It is really what has held us together."
Adjusting to change
New schools are designed to succeed immediately, Lyon said. Frisco ISD requires staff for new schools to consist of at least one third existing district employees.
Shana Wortham, director of media and communications for the district and part of the demographics team, said many times parents who are upset about the possibility of their child changing schools will come back a short time later and talk about how great the opportunities are for the child.
"That's part of this district too, as far as making sure our schools are equal. They are similar square footage, similar layout, design, use of space, everyone is trying to hire teachers at the same level," she said. "You train, you set the tone, you have a standardized curriculum. You do all these things to help ease the transition for students because we know we are in a district that we are going to have to move kids sometimes."
Aster Baheru, a parent whose daughter was transferred to the newly opened Heritage High School in 2009 as a sophomore from Liberty High School, said it was a good experience, despite the stigma associated with changing schools.
"We found that it opened up many opportunities to become engaged in a new community, since my daughter was able to meet new people, form new friendships, as well as start new clubs and activities, all within the context of her new school," Baheru said.
"In a lot of ways these things were made easier and more accessible by being in an environment where everyone is new. Of course, being rezoned to a different school is ultimately what you choose to make of it, and I think anyone can thrive in a new setting regardless of where in FISD they end up," she said.
Small schools concept
In the early 1990s, Frisco ISD agreed on a small school philosophy that has stayed throughout the years.
Despite the need to almost continuously build new schools and rezone, Lyon said the small schools concept remains a cornerstone.
"I think the commitment to the small schools concept has never been stronger than it is right now in Frisco," Lyon said.
Having smaller high schools means more opportunities for students, he said.
"Frisco ISD will have seven high schools that allow students to step into the spotlight in sports, academics, drama, AP, instead of having a mega high school where they have limited opportunities to break onto the main stage," the superintendent said.