The Fast Growth School Coalition, located at 401 West 15th St., Austin, describes itself as a collective voice that educates and advocates for investment in Texas’ fastest-growing school districts. A fast-growing school district is defined as a district with enrollment of at least 2,500 students during the previous school year and enrollment growth over the last five years of at least 10%, or a net increase of 3,500 or more students, according to Fast Growth School Coalition.
Greg Smith is the former superintendent of Clear Creek ISD and became executive director of Fast Growth School Coalition in December 2020.
Responses are edited for length and clarity.
Did fast-growing districts see a slowdown in enrollment or growth because of the pandemic?
We do know that across the state there was a slowdown in growth, and we had some kids that did not return to school. Across the state as a whole, we saw a decline in enrollment. However, we are anticipating 266,000 new students or students to come back to school. That includes new growth as well as former growth of students that took a gap year. Traditionally, the students that did not show up were in the pre-K or kindergarten area. Across the board, that’s who did not show up. They took a reverse gap year.
With that side of the coin, I think there’s a good opportunity to catch up this fall across the state. We're anticipating a tremendous amount of growth back in public schools in August. All the students that were supposed to come to school last year will be returning to school this year unless the delta variant [of the coronavirus] scares them out of returning. But either way, there’s not necessarily an avenue for districts to go back to virtually learning, so most of the districts are returning to in-person learning, and that’s the best way that we have found for instruction to take place and for students to learn.
Are fast-growing districts in Texas seeing enrollment numbers recover to roughly what they were before the pandemic?
We are expecting things to get back to some sense of normalcy with all of the students returning to in-person learning. Now, the wild card on this is to see how this delta variant reacts in every community. I’m sure that some parents are looking at it like, ‘Oh, well, I’ll start my kid off with a mask until my child gets vaccinated.'
Every district is going to be different. There are guidelines from Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention], the American Physicians Group and local districts [that] engaged with their communities to see what they want to do for the coming year. But we know one thing: Masks are not going to be mandatory per the governor's order.
So, that's the wild card, if the variant continues to increase, I think there’s a possibility that parents might say, ‘I’m going to homeschool my kids.’ But I also know that parents have to do what they have to do. So if they’re able to work, they’re going to say, ‘Mask up and go; we can’t have another year like we had last year.’
How did fast-growth districts experience learning loss?
There were obviously some setbacks with virtual learning, and I do not think that virtual learning was set up for kindergarten through 12th graders to learn six, seven hours a day online. That’s a lot to ask for kids; that’s a lot to ask for parents and certainly a lot to ask for teachers that might be doing hybrid courses, teaching students in class as well as those at the kitchen table. I think there is a lot of unfinished learning to go, despite all the things that we’ve done and that all the districts have done. I think that everybody did what they could in terms of getting technology devices in the hands of the kids and providing professional learning for teachers to enable them to have the skill sets to teach virtually and then measure it. But while we’re measuring student performance, we also have to be cognizant that there are some social and emotional gaps that will occur from kids not necessarily being in school.
Districts are different. Some districts had a great percentage of students that were learning in person ... whereas some districts were just the complete opposite, they had 75%-80% of the students online. And those students that were online did not perform as well as those students who performed in person. [Districts] that had more students attend in person are probably a step ahead of those who had predominantly kids at home and have fewer gaps to make up as a result of that.
Have fast-growing districts seen challenges in the past year with acquiring and maintaining employees?
Oh, you bet. I think COVID[-19] has added another variable to retention and so districts have to be creative on how they retain employees. Teachers and staff who were close to retiring, rather than making a lot of changes with virtual learning, checked out. I think if you look across the state, you probably had an above-average [number] of retirees or people that left the profession because of what was expected.
But I also know that with other layoffs in other companies across the state, if you had a teaching degree and if you had a passion for kids, you could probably get an interview with a local school district in your neighborhood. And if you’re good enough, you might catch on. I think it balances it out in terms of the working economy and who was laying off people and shutting things down and who was hiring.