It was the middle of a school day earlier this month, but it still looked like summer vacation around the Happy Homes Apartments complex in Alief.
A handful of elementary and middle-school-aged kids rode bikes around the parking lot. Two boys sat on concrete steps leading up to a second floor unit, and a 10-year-old girl and her brother played with Chihauhua puppies that had crawled out a hole in their patio fence.
Teachers at Alief ISD’s Bush Elementary fanned out across the complex to encourage many to enroll in school or participate in their classes, but the scale of what they faced was hard to grasp.
Enrollments were down by a whopping 10.3 percent in the southwest Houston school district, which had 4,680 fewer students registered to take classes late this September compared to last year.
Alief ISD is among seven of Houston’s 10 largest school districts that saw their student rolls fall by thousands, according to a Chronicle analysis of districts’ enrollment data. Houston ISD, the state’s largest school district, lost 13,187 students, the equivalent of more than 6.3 percent of its enrollment the previous year. Aldine ISD lost more than 3,800; Pasadena ISD’s enrollment shrank by more than 4.6 percent; Cypress-Fairbanks lost 2,553 students; Fort Bend’s enrollment was down by 1,244; and Klein ISD had 1,341 fewer enrolled late this September than it did in September 2019.
Texas Education Agency officials said they do not yet have firm enrollment data to know how widespread the losses are because districts do not begin reporting those numbers to the state until later this month. They said while it appears that districts across the state are grappling with the issue, they expect more students to log in or come back to campuses as the 2020-21 school year wears on.
The declines appear to be more prevalent in lower-income school districts nationally, said Julie Dunsmore, a professor of human development and family studies at the University of Houston’s College of Education. There are a multitude of reasons why, but they all hinge on the COVID-19 pandemic.
The coronavirus has had a disproportionate impact on poorer people and people of color, which may make those families less willing to send their students to physical campuses. At the same time, Dunsmore said, those families are less likely to have access to laptops and internet access, or a caregiver who can make sure students are doing their work.
“We already knew educational experiences are not equal, that there are disparities when you look at race and income,” Dunsmore said. “I worry this is going to get bigger, the inequalities are going to get wider.”
Indeed, the three large Houston-area districts that gained students serve a smaller portion of students from lower income households. And even as they grew, they gained fewer students than they had expected. Katy ISD grew by 705 students between last year and now. It added 3,470 students the previous year. Conroe ISD, which saw the biggest gain in students among the 10 biggest districts with 1,855 more enrollees than last year, still fell short of expectations.
“What’s different for us, maybe, than other districts is we’re not missing the kids we had last year,” Conroe ISD Superintendent Curtis Null said. “It’s just the new enrollees we expect every year, especially students in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten.”
The largest enrollment declines in Houston and across the country are among the youngest students.
Preschool enrollments were the source of Houston ISD’s largest declines, according to district officials, followed by elementary-school-aged students. Aldine has nearly 2,000 fewer students enrolled in its early childhood, prekindergarten and kindergarten programs than last year, and elementary students make up the second biggest chunk of the nearly-4,000-student decrease the district has seen so far this year. In Conroe, the problem extends from early childhood education to first grade.
“More than half of what we’re missing, we’re missing in those grades,” Null said. “We’re actually over our projections when you look at our secondary students, but it’s the younger students we’re missing.”
Enrollments at Houston’s 10 largest school districts, as of the fourth Monday in September in 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Fort Bend ISD
Those students’ ages make both remote and in-person learning unappealing to parents, said Julie Dunsmore, a professor of human development and family studies at the University of Houston’s College of Education. She said children between the ages of 3 and 6 may be too young to understand or follow public health guidelines, such as wearing facemasks properly all day and, thus, may be more likely to bring COVID-19 home. That is especially concerning when children live in multi-generational households.
“These are children learning to learn, they’re learning to be students and are not yet independent enough to be learners,” Dunsmore said. “They can’t use a mouse yet on their own. A lot of support is needed from a parent or someone else to be able to do remote learning with this very young age group.”
These youngest students are at one of the most critical developmental stages for creating a strong foundation for the rest of their educational careers. Most researchers and educators agree third grade is a pivotal point in a child’s education, where they begin to focus more on reading to learn than on learning to read. It also is the time when children learn crucial social and emotional skills, including how to make friends, how to solve conflicts, how to interact with teachers and how to manage their emotions, Dunsmore said.
Some younger and older students still may be getting the instruction they need outside of their old public schools, perhaps through homeschooling or private schools. However, Sheleah Reed, a spokeswoman for Aldine ISD, said some seem to be just gone.
“We’re not alone,” Reed said. “Kids are just returning, so we know they’re not transferring.”
Helping students of all ages catch up, especially those that were not enrolled in schools or taking classes at the start of this school year, could prove a challenge. Further complicating matters is that school districts may have fewer financial resources to help pay for staff and programs to address those learning gaps.
State funding for school districts hinges significantly on their average daily attendance, along with local property values, so fewer enrolled students means less state funding most years. The Texas Education Agency has extended a grace period for school districts’ funding to the end of the first semester, giving districts state funding based on TEA projections of how many students each district likely would have educated if 2020-21 were, well, normal.
How much districts get on a per-student basis varies based on the amount of revenue they raise locally through property taxes. Districts with lower property values — such as Aldine, Alief and Pasadena ISDs — tend to receive more funding from the state than districts such as Houston ISD, which is home to so much valuable property that it is forced to give local revenue to the state.
Districts with lower property values stand to lose more funding, but they often are the ones educating the largest shares of lower income students and students of color — those Dunsmore warned could be farther behind their peers due to COVID-19.
Klein ISD could lose $8,618 per student in state funding. Aldine ISD would lose nearly $6,160 per student if TEA did not create a grace period this year. That would result in a budget reduction of $20 million if the state counted Aldine ISD’s current enrollment.
Dawn Ayers, Aldine ISD’s chief of strategic initiatives and accountability, and district spokeswoman Sheleah Reed said officials are not talking about layoffs at this point, but they are looking at ways to cut spending.
“When you don’t have the money you had before, you have to start reflecting and prioritizing what are the things that are most impactful,” Ayers said.
Back at the Happy Homes apartment complex, Nguyet “Mimi” Tran and Johana Santacruz knocked on 15 doors trying to find students who should be enrolled at Bush Elementary, where the student body is down by about 10 percent. Only one student answered.
They left flyers at the other apartments. One contained information about how parents could enroll their students. The other offered prizes only available to those “enrolled and present”: free school supplies, free school uniform, free access to technology, and free student breakfasts and lunches.
“It makes me really sad because I’m not really sure what support these families really need in order to either get their kids enrolled,” said Tran, a student support specialist with Communities in Schools. “I’m hoping they’ll come back. I want to say I think so, but really it’s me hoping.”