Valley School Districts Experiencing Decrease in Enrollment

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MCALLEN – School districts across the Rio Grande Valley are trying to keep students from leaving.

CHANNEL 5 NEWS analyzed enrollment at all school districts in the Region 1. This region includes seven counties – Webb, Zapata, Starr, Hidalgo, Willacy, Jim Hogg and Cameron. Out of all the public school districts, eight of them had a steady decrease in enrollment for the past five years. We reached out to all eight for an interview; only three responded to the request.

Every child stepping into a public school translates to thousands of dollars in funding for that district. Lose one, and a district will feel it. Lose hundreds, and you'll see it. Large and small, these school districts in the Valley are seeing shorter enrollment lists: Santa Rosa, Santa Maria, Lasara, Mercedes, La Joya, Donna, McAllen, and even Brownsville Independent School District. (Also see interactive Index A below)

We wanted to know the reason for the decline. For five of those school districts, the majority of the students are not leaving the Valley. Instead, thousands are showing up on the rosters of nearby charter schools – IDEA Public Schools.

IDEA School numbers in the Valley are growing. They show a steady influx of students. Their average rate of growth was about 12-percent last year. Those encouraging numbers led to two new schools this year and more coming in 2019.

Other factors exist. Santa Rosa Superintendent Heriberto Villarreal has seen the educational landscape change over the past 12 years. He believes location plays a part in their contraction. 

Villarreal explains, "We're not along that main corridor. So, unless you have to come to Santa Rosa, you're going to miss it."

Housing, or the lack of it, is a factor in this small town. That can have a ripple effect on young families looking for a home. If they don't find one, they move on, robbing the school's chance for growth.

"The number of pre-k students that we're enrolling has slowed down compared to the number of students that we're graduating," adds Villarreal.

Low birth rates are a contributing factor at the largest school district – Brownsville ISD. Assistant Superintendent Alma Cardenas-Rubio also points to upward mobility. "But what we've noticed is a lot of the students are leaving with their parents to higher paying jobs up in the Valley up, such as the San Antonio area. Or, we have a lot of parents who choose not to enroll their students in the first grade," said Cardenas-Rubio.

The numbers so far this year are looking promising. Brownsville ISD is seeing an increase in second graders and three-year-old enrollment so far.

In Donna, it’s a similar story. Dr. Hafedh Azaiez, Donna ISD Superintendent, was reviewing the enrollment figures of the first school days. "On day one we were short 400 students. As of yesterday, that decreased to 140."

Azaiez just started as superintendent in August. He's watching those numbers and their effect on the bottom line. "This budget cut is something we had to inherit," he said. Those cuts were announced to employees in a letter they received in August.

It informed them enrollment combined with an increase in property values meant a loss of about $6-million dollars in state revenue. They made some hard choices.

"Then we also cut spending on no-discretionary spending by about 15-percent," said Azaiez.

Donna ISD campuses will be spending less as a result. Non-teaching staff lost five-days; the district saved about $1.2 million. Positions were closed by attrition; that adds up to another $1.5 – $2-million in savings.

Over in Santa Rosa, they're working with a smaller budget, yet a similar impact. "When you lose students, and you're losing $70,000 a year, that's one FTE for us." FTE is a full-time employee. Villarreal said they're facing that loss this year. About 80-percent of their budget is personnel. They don't have plans to cut jobs. If someone leaves, they may not replace them.

Their classrooms may not be full. That could be a selling point. "They will see that the size of our district and the small class size is truly a benefit for the students here," encourages Villarreal.

This is not the case for some districts. Over-packed classrooms that exceed the state-mandated student-to-teacher ratio need special waivers from the Texas Education Agency, or TEA.**

Of the eight districts with declining enrollment, McAllen, Donna, and La Joya requested waivers in the last five years. That means the class size is bigger than mandated by the state. McAllen requested the most, by far.

The reason waivers are requested vary. McAllen claimed financial hardship and lack of physical space.

Brownsville may be losing students, but they're adding teachers – about six this year. Cardenas-Rubio and the administration want to ensure there are enough resources to make the grade. This past school year, TEA graded them as an 89. They're contesting that score. Cardenas-Rubio explains, "It's important for everyone to understand that the district received a 90, but it's not allowed to be promoted as an A, because one of the 58 schools did not receive that score."

Lincoln Park is a campus designed for pregnant or young mothers.  Their grades were counted collectively, rather than be disbursed throughout the district. That campus was determined to require improvement by the TEA. Because of that, Brownsville ISD did not get an "A" grade by the state agency. McAllen did receive an "A." The rest of the campuses on the list passed with a "B"; Donna received a "C."

Donna, Santa Rosa, and Brownsville are working to bring their students back. Santa Rosa received a competitive grant to offer after-school STEM programs. They're also looking forward to a new housing development. They hope it brings them more students next school year.

All three districts are expanding what they offer in the classroom, too. Donna changed to a full-day at pre-K. That already increased enrollment at that level by over 200 students. They're also adding to the number of high-school credit courses offered in middle school. It's designed to complement the college-credit courses in high school.

"So, you're on a path to start taking those dual credit AP courses," said Azaiez. "You can easily collect college credit or hours, maybe up to an associate degree. So, we want to have more and more of our students eventually get an associate's degree while in high school." 

Brownsville ISD noticed they may lose students in elementary. Eventually, Cardenas-Rubio says, they come back for high school. BISD offers extra-curricular activities not seen in charter schools. She says their vision extends past graduation.

She says, "Our goal is not for you to just be here until 12th grade. Our goal is that, 'are you going to make it at the high school level? Are you going to make it in the workforce? Are you going to flourish? And, what did we do to contribute to that?'"

All three districts – Donna, Santa Rosa, and Brownsville – are open-enrollment campuses. They'll be gauging how successful their strategies are in drawing students throughout the year. They're hoping to break the downward trend.

Migrant students tend to arrive late into the school year. That may increase the enrollment for some districts. Come October, the Texas Education Agency will be taking a snapshot of school enrollment figures. That's when districts will know if the streak has ended.

**Districts of Innovation can opt out of requiring waivers to exceed state-mandated student-to-teacher ratio for K-4 like Harlingen ISD.


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