Denser population, fewer students: Arlington ISD to face enrollment decreases in upcoming years

dfwnewsa | February 27, 2024 | 0 | Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

Denser population, fewer students: Arlington ISD to face enrollment decreases in upcoming years

Teaching assistant Marissa Garcia shows students how to complete a math assignment Feb. 12, 2024, at McNutt Elementary. The elementary school offers a pre-K program, a driving factor to attract more students to the district. (Dang Le | Fort Worth Report)
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Justin Chapa, Arlington ISD’s board vice president, remembered east Arlington elementary schools were “packed to the brim” when he visited them in 2009. 

The district invested in building more schools on that side of town. About five years later, Chapa, who sat on the district’s capital needs committee, was told Arlington ISD would have more than 60,000 students by 2024. It reached close to that number in the 2019-20 academic year.

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But now the district is losing more students every academic year, and Arlington is reaching its full capacity of homes, according to a report given to the trustees Feb. 22 by Zonda Education, a Southlake-based demographic firm. By the next decade, the district is projected to have about 50,000 students. 

Arlington ISD is in the fifth year of its $966 million bond, and over $850 million is earmarked for building and upgrading more facilities. Many east Arlington schools built following 2009 are “substantially underutilized,” Chapa said. 

“In a lot of ways, it doesn’t make sense to serve a district with 50,000 students with as many facilities as we serve 65 (thousand) or 63,000 students,” he said. 

The district may lose about 900 students by next academic year due to growth and groups of students leaving and coming to Arlington ISD, said Rocky Gardiner, school district consulting director at Zonda. 

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Arlington ISD is yielding fewer students, but the area is getting more dense, Gardiner said.  

Zonda reported sale closings on 27 homes in Arlington ISD by the third quarter of 2023. 

By comparison with nearby districts in the same period, 1,823 home sales closed in Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD, and 1,254 in Mansfield ISD. The company reported the most home sale closings in Northwest ISD, with 3,396. 

Texas school districts receive federal funding based on the number of students attending classes, and they plan and budget based on the number of enrolled students. Arlington ISD operated with a $5.5 million budget deficit in 2023-24. The district is projected to have a $42 million deficit for the upcoming academic year. 

Gardiner said homeschooling is likely affecting Arlington ISD’s enrollment numbers, as student enrollment at charter schools has not been increasing significantly. 

Zonda Education also tracks students coming to and leaving the district based on their school identification numbers. The overall trend: Arlington ISD saw an increase in students leaving but a decrease in newcomers, Gardiner said. 

The district historically captured 85% to 90% of newborns for its kindergarten programs five years later, based on birth rates by ZIP codes, he said. When the pandemic hit, the birth rate declined, and kindergarten enrollment slowed. 

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If the district can increase kindergarten enrollment to about 3,600 per year, Arlington ISD may still see around 53,000 students annually, Gardiner said. 

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Arlington ISD introduced a free pre-K program in the 2022-23 academic year. That same year, the district saw an increase of over 600 in pre-K enrollments. However, that number didn’t translate into higher kindergarten enrollment numbers. 

“I don’t really have an explanation for that, other than they chose to go back to either private kindergarten or maybe they were outside the district (and) went back to a kindergarten class,” Gardiner said. 

The district listed the free pre-K program as a reason for this year’s budget deficit. 

The number of pre-K students is not hitting the target goals, trustee Aaron Reich said. 

“Strategically, the investments that we’ve made in retaining students don’t match this data,” Reich said. 

While Gardiner was surprised to see a decrease in 2023-24 pre-K enrollment, the program is too new to determine its effectiveness in attracting more students, seeing as it gave the district a huge jump the previous academic year, he said. 

Zonda expects kindergarten enrollment for 2024-25 will also drop due to birth rates declining in 2019 and 2020. 

The kindergarten data is especially important to Arlington ISD because the district begins losing students at the secondary level.

Arlington ISD saw a high number of ninth graders last year, but it retained only 80% of them going into sophomore year, Gardiner said. The trend repeated from the previous year.

“I projected those to bounce back, and they didn’t because last year, it dropped to 80 as well,” he said. “That didn’t bounce back, and then the 11th grade dropped again, which was lower than the average that we’ve seen in quite some time.”

The district’s senior leadership team will discuss enrollment trends and present strategies to the board later this year, Superintendent Matt Smith said. 

Dang Le is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at dang.le@fortworthreport.org or @DangHLe. 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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