Here’s what Greater Houston area education leaders had to say about the future of suburban schools

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As education options continue to play a major role in where families decide to settle down, the success of local schools remains closely tied to the success of quality developments in Houston suburbs, according to local education leaders.

The Urban Land Institute Houston hosted its annual Suburban Marketplace event in Sugar Land on Thursday, April 12, where a panel of education officials discussed the future of suburban schools.

Speakers included Andrew Derry, principal of the British International School of Houston in Katy; Cy-Fair ISD Superintendent Mark Henry; Beth Martinez, chief of staff and strategic planning in Fort Bend ISD; and Waller ISD Superintendent Danny Twardowski. Here are some key takeaways from the conversation:

The way school districts are accommodating fast-growing populations is evolving.

Historically, Martinez said FBISD has built schools to catch up with growth in the district, which is now up to 75,000 students. Now, new schools are opening under capacity intentionally to provide space to accommodate future growth. District officials are working to define education specifications at the elementary, middle and high school level to maintain equity throughout the district, she said.

“We are future planning… with the flexible spacing and we can accommodate the changes that we can’t even possibly fathom at this point to be able to utilize our buildings over time,” Martinez said.

In CFISD—a district of 116,000 students where there is little land left for development—Henry said new schools are being built on multi-campus sites, and facility design is moving vertically rather than horizontally. For instance, a four-story Bridgeland High School opened last fall on a 128-acre tract of land. The school opened along with a new elementary school and with space for a future middle school.

Unlike the larger districts, rural WISD has plenty of space for future development, Twardowski said. By the end of 2018, the nearby Daikin-Goodman manufacturing plant—which opened last May—will employee 6,000 people, he said.

As a result, new families are expected to move to the area, and these families will want amenities such as walking trails, hiking trails and gathering areas with hotspots for high-speed internet access, Twardowski said. Mobility is another factor to consider when planning for the future at WISD, where many students spend up to an hour on the school bus to get to and from school, he said.

Because BISH is a private school, and its 3,000 students commute from all over the Greater Houston area each day, Derry said the facility is moving beyond traditional use to become a “satellite for education.” The school is one-to-one—meaning each student has their own technological device—and in the next five to 10 years, more and more high school classes will be offered online as they are in a university environment, Derry said.

Technology is used as a tool, but local ISDs do not want to replace relationships with devices.

CFISD spent nearly $2.5 million to upgrade technology infrastructure throughout the district in its most recent bond referendum. Henry said although technology is a useful tool in developing well-rounded students, relationships through athletics, fine arts, clubs and academic classes are more important.

“Go to a restaurant sometime and watch a family of four sitting around the table and see if they’re talking to each other or see if they’re on their cell phones,” Henry said. “Now tell me, how is that improving relationships in this country?”

Martinez said technology has become such an integral part of the way modern society functions, so FBISD prepares students to be “responsible digital citizens” inside and outside the school system. Human interaction and collaboration is crucial, but technology can be used to facilitate connections, she said.

In many areas of WISD, students do not have access to high-speed internet service, Twardowski said. While virtual reality and other high-tech programs can be used to support the learning process, he said one of the most valuable advantages of the public school system is that students have the opportunity to interact with a diverse group of people who can offer different perspectives.

According to the World Economic Forum, 65 percent of current elementary school students will be applying for jobs that do not yet exist when entering the workforce, Derry said. Outside of blended learning, BISH also partners with local industry leaders, such as the Texas Medical Center, in entrepreneurial programs.

Districts believe the state’s standards for student performance do not align with their financial contribution.

Henry said when he first came to CFISD in 2011, the state contributed 52 percent of the district’s total revenue. That number has dropped to about 37 percent in 2018-19, he said. Districts across the state are struggling to meet state standards without making budget cuts, he said.

Martinez said the “broken funding formula” is a contributing factor toward the $12 million deficit FBISD faces next year. She said it is also difficult to maintain high quality education without cutting staff due to unfunded mandates. For instance, the state has mandated installing cameras in special education classrooms but has not provided any additional funding to do so, Martinez said.

Twardowski said state funding has not kept up with the increases in enrollment many districts are seeing.

“The story that you hear is the state is spending more and more money on public education, which is a true statement,” Twardowski said. “However, in proportion to the new students that we’re getting, the cost that it takes to educate those students to the standard that we set and the state sets for us, it’s not aligned. In Waller ISD, we are receiving less money from the state each year and more money is coming from local property taxes because we have to meet that standard.”

Officials also said the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness—also known as STAAR—is setting certain students up for failure. The third grade reading test, for instance, is written at a fifth grade level, Twardowski said. He said he believes any student can find his or her own niche to be successful in life, and the STAAR exam does not accurately measure one’s success.

From a global perspective, Derry said countries around the world are working to transform their education system creatively.

“I think it’s a shame that, at the same time, the U.S. is trying to work out how to be standardized,” he said. “Where I come from we have a saying… ’You don’t make a pig any fatter just by weighing it.’”

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Danica Smithwick
Danica joined Community Impact Newspaper in May 2016 after graduating with a journalism degree from Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. She covers public education, local government, business, demographic trends, real estate development, nonprofits and more in the Cy-Fair community.
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