School bond projects in Sugar Land and Missouri City are coming online two years after Fort Bend ISD voters approved $484 million in funding. Anne McCormick Sullivan Elementary School opened in Sugar Land in August and will be followed by elementary school 48 and middle school 15 in Missouri City starting next school year.

All three projects are indicative of the district’s new school design standards, however, not all students will see the changes. The bonds are having a smaller impact on some older campuses in areas of slow growth. But FBISD leaders are also battling projected annual population growth for the next decade. FBISD had 73,717 students in the 2015-16 academic year, and that number will likely grow by 10.5 percent to 15.6 percent by 2025, according to Population and Survey Analysts’ latest report.

“You have to decide on a capacity for the school and as growth comes, you go ahead and adjust,” said Oscar Perez, FBISD executive director of design and construction.

New schools shine light on growth, demographic challengesSullivan Elementary

Superintendent Charles Dupre said he was looking forward to starting the school year with a new building and more room for students.

“I’m happy that the 2014 bond program is moving as expected,” he said. “I think that’s evidenced by Sullivan Elementary opening, and it’s going to be used almost to capacity this year, so that’s exciting.”

Tucked away among the luxury homes and water features of Riverstone Development, the 150,576-square-foot Sullivan Elementary is the first of four elementary schools to open from the 2014 bond program. 

Construction on the two-story building began in April 2015, and staff moved in mid-August. For a total construction budget of $32.2 million, Sullivan Elementary has a maximum capacity of 1,200 students.

New schools shine light on growth, demographic challenges“I think [the vision] was really to make it still feel like a … regular FBISD school but accommodating 400 more [students],” said Ashley Dixon, FBISD construction manager, design and construction.

The school’s central library has a “maker space” for students to participate in different educational and hands-on activities. Maker spaces are part of FBISD’s initiative to create “21st century learning environments.”

According to the district’s Elementary School Education Specifications, or Ed Specs, which were last updated in 2015, 21st century learning environments involve spaces for collaborative learning and spaces for the wider community.

Sullivan Elementary is also the district’s first school to be LEED certified by the U.S. Green Building Council as an environmentally sustainable building.

New schools shine light on growth, demographic challengesPreserving what exists

While the 2007 and 2014 bond programs were intended to fund new construction, they also supported changes to existing FBISD facilities in areas of slower growth.

On Aug. 15, the board of trustees approved $19.5 million total in construction contracts for new classrooms at Oyster Creek, Sienna Crossing, Schiff, Scanlan Oaks, Holley and Cornerstone elementary schools. FBISD will also perform renovations at various schools around the district, such as boiler replacement and roof repairs at Burton Elementary School.

“The plan on those is that actually moving forward, [if] we’re going to make any major changes, then we would incorporate the 21st Century [Learning Environment] ideals into them,” Perez said.

First built in 1976, Dulles Elementary School’s enhancements inlcude a flex space, cafeteria wall partition and other building upgrades.

But Perez said that if the original structure is too old, some renovations cannot be made without gutting a school entirely. That would likely require another bond program, he said.

“You’d literally have to be able to reconfigure [the school],” he said.

New schools shine light on growth, demographic challengesDemographic differences

The neighborhoods of FBISD’s newest schools are in areas of high growth, high household incomes and low numbers of economically disadvantaged students. The feeder schools for Sullivan Elementary—Austin Parkway, Colony Bend, Settlers Way and Commonwealth elementary schools—all reported to the TEA 17 percent or fewer economically disadvantaged students in the 2014-15 school year.

ES 48 will affect students at Schiff, Sienna Crossing, Scanlan Oaks, and Heritage Rose elementary schools. MS 15 could affect students at Baines and First Colony middle school, according to FBISD. While Heritage Rose had 73.3 percent economically disadvantaged students, the other feeder schools reported to the TEA 25.9 percent or fewer in the 2014-15 year.

By comparison, Ridgemont Elementary School reported 88.9 percent economically disadvantaged students in the 2014-15 school year. Built in 1973, the school is at 94 percent capacity this year despite being in an area of lower residential growth.

The 2014 bond program included upgrades such as security features, doors, and windows but no structural changes or new space for Ridgemont.

Ridgemont will pilot the district’s new Educators Dedicated to Growing Excellence, or EDGE program, this year along with Briargate Elementary School—a campus built in 1977, with 85.6 percent economically disadvantaged students in 2014-15 and also in an area of slower growth.

EDGE replaces the traditional classroom environment with more flexible student grouping and teaching techniques, according to FBISD. Megan Evans, FBISD director of innovation and continuous improvement, said the district considered Ridgemont’s and Briargate’s environments when designing EDGE.

“That was something that we were very strategic about was [ensuring] both of those campuses have the most inviting environment as possible,” she said.

Evans said data is being collected on EDGE’s implementation, but she could not speak to the effect of the schools’ facilities on long-term student achievement.

A growing challenge

Another future hurdle is continued enrollment growth. Schiff Elementary in particular was over capacity on the first day of school in August, leading students not already enrolled there to be bussed to Sienna Crossing Elementary.

“Moving forward, the district will recommend a class-size waiver from the [TEA], allowing a slight increase in class sizes,” said a letter to parents from FBISD Chief of Schools Mark Foust.

To manage that growth, Perez said it is necessary to not build too large but also plan for portable buildings.

“It’s an unavoidable evil,” he said. “We design the schools with growth in mind.”

Dupre said he hopes the new schools will allow the district to maintain the same quality of education for future students.

“Our goal is to really balance enrollment in school so that we can have an outstanding learning environment for all children,” Dupre said. “Overcrowded schools are not the best learning environment.”