WilCo schools aim to address changing student population with new initiatives

WilCo schools aim to address changing student population with new initiativesShifting 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.

In the 2015-16 and 2014-15 school years, Leander ISD grew its ELL programs  to teach children bilingual literacy, despite a regional shortage in the number of qualified and “readily available” teachers for ELL, said Veronica Sopher, assistant superintendent of community and government relations.

“It is a … regional shortage and we are arm-and-arm with our fellow districts trying to get qualified people,” Sopher said. “People are applying for [our ELL] jobs and we have grown the program from its pilot. We know we’re on the right track.”

Income and achievementsWilCo schools aim to address changing student population with new initiatives

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 any [demographic] group, 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 of a student’s family and his or her income and attainment levels 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 are not having the opportunity to go to museums or have outside opportunities.”

Dawson said achievement levels are tied to not only income, but also ethnicity and gender. She said the lowest-performing groups tend to be low-income African-American and Hispanic males, displaying three demographic indicators.

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.”

Although LISD has a smaller percentage of economically disadvantaged students than some of its neighboring districts, Sopher said if financial restraints are present for students, the district makes opportunities available for them to help them succeed in academics. For example, if these students do well in an advanced placement class and want to take the AP exam to receive college credit, the district has scholarships available to them.

“If students have a desire for more rigor and there is a cost associated with it—whether it’s taking the SATs or [another opportunity]—the district has resources. … There should be no barriers to their achievement and we’ll help them get there.”

Early educationWilCo schools aim to address changing student population with new initiatives

Dawson said one of the most important initiatives school districts can undertake to address 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.

“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 within LISD, which helps students develop social, play and “joyful learning” skills in prekindergarten and kindergarten children.

“We’re talking to them at the elementary schools about what colleges are available, the types of careers they can have [and we] talk about military options. We’re talking to them at a young age about what it means to be college and career-ready. We know college isn’t for everyone, and so we certainly want to highlight and promote skills as well.”

Preparing for the future

Laura Segers, Round Rock ISD executive director of state and federal programs, said the district’s ELL students come from throughout the world. Segers said research has shown that ELL students in RRISD and elsewhere who excel in the ELL program often outperform their non-ELL peers.

Beyond ELL, Dawson said schools need to focus on not just graduation rates, but getting students to secondary educational opportunities as well.

“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 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, all of which LISD emphasizes to its students, Sopher said.

“College- and career-ready isn’t just about attending a four-year university,” Sopher said. “It’s [about] walking across the stage with a diploma in hand and having the skill sets you need. Having those good interpersonal skills, being able to manage personal finances. … Those are just as important as any other measure we have. We know it’s not just about test scores. We know it’s about having these kids leave our system ready for anything they choose.”

Additional reporting by Lyndsey Taylor