These Fort Worth ISD schools could be among first considered for closures

dfwnewsa | November 19, 2023 | 1 | Dallas News , Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

These Fort Worth ISD schools could be among first considered for closures
Rufino Mendoza Sr. Elementary students work on an assignment on Aug. 14, 2023. Mendoza Elementary is among one of the lowest enrollment schools in Fort Worth ISD. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

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The Fort Worth ISD school board meeting in September was packed. Community members were eager to voice their concerns about books, principals and pay.

One agenda item was mostly overlooked: school closures.

But district officials know that was the calm before the storm. At the meeting, trustees set in motion a plan that will lead to the closing of schools.

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A Fort Worth Report analysis found 48 schools are less than 70% full — most of which are in south and east Fort Worth ISD. The four dozen schools are likely to be among the first that district leaders look at as they determine how to shrink Fort Worth ISD’s footprint because of declining enrollment.  

“There hasn’t been a lot of community voice around under-enrollment,” Shawn Lassiter, a south Fort Worth community leader, said.

Fort Worth ISD does not have a specific number of campuses it is targeting for closure, said Mike Naughton, executive director of facilities planning and operations. However, he said the Report’s analysis is in “the ballpark.” 

The district has communicated to the public that it is in the early stages of its master facility plan and emphasized no recommendations or decisions have been made, according to a spokesperson.

By the numbers

Here are a few numbers that explain why Fort Worth ISD is looking to close schools:

  • 1 in 5 students have left the district since 2016.
  • 70,675 students are enrolled. In 2016, that number was 87,428.
  • $45 million deficit
  • $123 million — that’s how much Fort Worth ISD has lost in state revenue since 2019.

“We are still at a very early stage in the process,” the spokesperson said.

In a September news release, the district called the school board’s approval of a study examining campus capacity as “groundbreaking.”

“Despite a decline in enrollment, the district has not proportionally reduced the number of schools it operates,” the district stated. “This has led to underutilized facilities and smaller student populations in some schools, resulting in higher operational costs and fewer academic offerings.”

A preliminary study is expected to be released in the spring. After its release, the district plans to seek community feedback as it develops options to rightsize and issue a final report.

“We want to make sure that we’re giving the community what they need,” Naughton said.

Carrie Hahnel, senior associate partner at national education nonprofit Bellwether, laid out the situation facing Fort Worth ISD: School closures are inevitable because fewer students means fewer dollars.

“In a place like Fort Worth that’s lost one in five students and is projected to lose a lot more, closures and consolidations are a necessary part of what the district is going to have to consider,” Hahnel said.

‘It has not been a surprise’

Steep declines among elementary students raised Naughton’s concerns. 

Since 2016, Fort Worth ISD has lost nearly 11,000 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. 

Fort Worth ISD can hold up to 48,231 students in its 78 elementary schools. Current enrollment falls 13,063 students short of that. The gap was 3,372 students in 2016.

“It has not been a surprise that elementary decline has hit middle school and that, eventually, will likely hit high school,” Naughton said.

Declining enrollment particularly hits schools with higher numbers of students of color and lower-income communities, Hahnel said.

Most of the 48 under-enrolled schools are in south and east Fort Worth ISD, which have higher percentages of low-income families.

“It’s not an accident that the neighborhoods that are affected by declining enrollment tend to have greater needs in their schools,” Hahnel said.

The district sees upcoming campus decisions as necessary to make more efficient use of buildings. School closures and repurposing likely will be a multiyear process, Naughton said.

Fort Worth ISD has 140 campuses. The Frisco and Conroe school districts have similar enrollments to Fort Worth ISD, but have fewer campuses. Frisco ISD has 77 campuses for its 66,916 students, while Conroe ISD has 68 for 70,783 students. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, the third-largest district in Texas, has 91 campuses for its 118,010 students.

What factors will Fort Worth ISD evaluate?

Mike Naughton, executive director of facilities planning and operations, said the district does not have a specific number of campuses it is looking at for possible closures or repurposing. Instead, officials plan to look at several factors to evaluate campuses. They include:

  • Program needs
  • Building capacity
  • Condition of buildings
  • Logistics of relocating students, teachers and other staff
  • Geography
  • Enrollment patterns
  • Changing demographics

Ensuring a balanced approach to school closures is a priority, Naughton said. Just being under-enrolled will not mean an automatic closure. The district plans to consider outside factors, such as new housing developments, too. 

“The fact of the matter is certain parts of the district have seen more decline than others,” Naughton said.

Lower enrollment expected

Superintendent Angélica Ramsey expects Fort Worth ISD’s enrollment to plateau around 55,000 students, she said during an early 2023 speech. 

Demographer Bob Templeton expects Ramsey’s projection to eventually be reality. However, determining when enrollment might decline to that level depends on outside factors, such as the Texas Legislature’s push for vouchers.

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Enrollment declines are affecting districts beyond Fort Worth ISD, said Templeton, a vice president at Southlake-based demographics firm Zonda. The Plano and Irving school districts are discussing school closures, and Dallas ISD has lost thousands of students in recent years.

“All of the urban school districts are struggling from this dramatic drop in enrollment,” Templeton said.

What should Fort Worth ISD consider during closures?

School closures are hard for districts and communities. Carrie Hahnel, senior associate partner at national education nonprofit Bellwether, suggested Fort Worth ISD consider these factors:

Look to other school systems: Jeffco Public Schools near Denver recently closed 16 campuses after experiencing similar issues to Fort Worth ISD. 

“That was a lot for that community,” Hahnel said.

However, Jeffco had an extensive process for community input. The feedback contributed to a smoother process for closures, Hahnel said.

Connect school consolidations and closures with academic priorities: Hahnel has not seen much of a conversation connecting these two topics. San Francisco Unified School District is starting to talk about that, she said.

“What do we want to offer this community? What does ‘good’ look like when it comes to our academic program? And how do we think about ways to reimagine how our schools are located? What does our school assignment and school choice system look like?” Hahnel said, listing questions district leaders should ask as they rethink teaching and learning while reducing the number of physical schools.

‘Hollowing out’

The same trend is happening nationally, too, Hahnel said.

Families cannot afford housing in urban areas, and those who can tend to have fewer children. 

The more affluent families also exercise their choice to send their children somewhere other than traditional public schools for an education.

Declining birth rates across the nation are at play, too.

“Those demographic patterns are just hollowing out many of our school districts — and that’s not likely to change,” Hahnel said.

What has the district done so far?

In the past five years, Fort Worth ISD has consolidated and closed some campuses. Here’s what they’ve done and what is planned:

  • Maudrie W. Walton, Eastern Hills and Worth Heights elementary schools will be replaced with new larger campuses that are expected to open starting in 2026. The district plans to consolidate some nearby elementary schools into the new campuses.
  • Closed Rosemont Sixth Grade Center and moved students to Rosemont Middle School. The sixth grade campus became Applied Learning Academy.
  • The former Handley Middle School building is now the Metro Opportunity School, Middle Level Learning Center, support services, JROTC and after school program.
  • MG Ellis Elementary housed special education, parent partnerships and counseling.
  • The former Middle Level Learning Center is now International Newcomer Academy.
  • The former Applied Learning Academy is the new Central Administration building.
  • A renovated facility on Lubbock Avenue now houses the maintenance and technology departments.
  • Como Montessori was closed and became Workforce-Based High School.

Reasons for local declines

At the more local level, Templeton pinned Fort Worth ISD’s declines to school choice, changing demographics and mistrust.

Increased competition from charter schools and, to a smaller extent, other traditional public school districts has taken bites out of Fort Worth ISD’s enrollment. 

During the 2022-23 school year, 17,883 lived in Fort Worth ISD but attended school elsewhere, while 122 transferred in, according to the Texas Education Agency. 

Expensive housing is displacing lower-income families, who are moving to more affordable areas, Templeton said. The rise of mixed-use developments in urban areas attracts couples or families who want smaller places to live — and that tends to mean fewer children in those areas.

The growing mistrust of public education also is at play, Templeton said. Parents of all stripes are unhappy with public schools as politically divisive issues become focal points. 

Opportunity in closures

Closing or even consolidating campuses is not easy. However, Hahnel and Templeton described the moment Fort Worth ISD faces as an opportunity to solve other problems.

“It’s hard to pretend that it’s all silver lining, but it is when we’re thinking about how we offer our students and our families something of value,” Hahnel said. “As we’re removing one thing, we’re giving them something else — we’re giving them more opportunities.”

Templeton sees this as a way for the district to consider building replacement campuses instead of maintaining old buildings. 

“That sometimes will cause a spark of return,” Templeton said. “When they see the new buildings and they see the improvements, it can create excitement to get back to the neighborhood public school.”

Teacher vacancies could be eliminated as the district considers shrinking the number of staff or shifting employees to other schools, Hahnel said. The district also could place high-quality teachers into classrooms that need them.

“I think there might be things that we haven’t thought of that could actually create opportunities to see upticks in teaching and learning — which is ultimately what we need in order to stem the declining enrollment,” Hahnel said.

How we did our analysis

The Fort Worth Report’s analysis is based on 2021-22 campus enrollment data from the Texas Education Agency and Fort Worth ISD school capacity figures obtained through an open records request.

The enrollment data is the most recent available from the state.

The Report compared each school’s enrollment and capacity to determine the percentage full of each campus.

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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