Area fam­i­lies re­sist school boundary changes

Fort Bend ISD is the lat­est to con­sider re­zon­ing as growth skews en­roll­ments

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Brooke A. Lewis STAFF WRITER

When Julie Rusk de­cided to move to Pe­can Es­tates, a gated com­mu­nity in Fort Bend County, she didn’t ex­pect that her daugh­ter would have to worry about bounc­ing from one school to an­other.

“That’s what I think every­body ex­pects, when you move into a dis­trict,” Rusk said. When a real es­tate list­ing in­di­cates a home is zoned to a cer­tain school, she said, “you don’t ex­pect, ‘Oh I’m sorry, we’re go­ing to change that now.’ The whole area here was just dev­as­tated.”

Her daugh­ter, Breeana, has ex­pe­ri­enced a lot of tran­si­tion since she started sixth grade in Fort Bend ISD. She be­gan at First Colony Mid­dle School, but by eighth grade she was re­zoned to Baines Mid­dle School. She waited anx­iously to find out if she might at­tend Hightower High School, in­stead of the planned Ridge Point, as the dis­trict de­bated go­ing through an­other re­zon­ing process.

Her dilemma is in­creas­ingly com­mon in Hous­tonarea sub­urbs, where the lure of a good school in a good neigh­bor­hood has fu­eled

steady growth and devel­op­ment for decades. As some of these com­mu­ni­ties have ma­tured, un­even growth pat­terns have led school of­fi­cials to change zone bound­aries in or­der to bal­ance en­roll­ments. The pos­si­bil­ity of at­tend­ing a dif­fer­ent school than planned causes anx­i­ety and frus­tra­tion among some par­ents and stu­dents.

As cer­tain parts of a dis­trict grow, schools in other ar­eas can be left feel­ing like a “stepchild,” said Guy Sconzo, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Fast Growth School Coali­tion.

“Re­zon­ing is just a way of life,” said Sconzo, a for­mer Hum­ble ISD su­per­in­ten­dent. “It’s just a nec­es­sary part of man­ag­ing as best as pos­si­ble that on­go­ing growth.”

In Fort Bend ISD, for ex­am­ple, some schools are brim­ming at ca­pac­ity while en­roll­ments at oth­ers dwin­dle. Sev­eral fac­tors are at work: the open­ing of new schools, changes in at­ten­dance bound­aries and on­go­ing devel­op­ment.

The heav­i­est growth in the dis­trict, which now has more than 76,000 stu­dents, has come in its western sec­tion, with scat­tered de­creases on the east­ern side, ac­cord­ing to a 2018 de­mo­graphic re­port by Pop­u­la­tion and Sur­vey An­a­lysts. Dis­trict of­fi­cials said they’ve also seen growth in pock­ets on the north and south­east­ern sides. Fort Bend ISD is on track for con­tin­ued growth, driven in part by its prox­im­ity to em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties.

The dis­trict spent $127,000 on a con­tract with a con­sult­ing firm to make rec­om­men­da­tions on chang­ing at­ten­dance bound­aries and other is­sues. Its vot­ers ap­proved a $992.6 mil­lion bond is­sue to build new schools and im­prove ex­ist­ing cam­puses.

The Rusk fam­ily’s con­cerns were eased when the school board, at its Jan. 22 meet­ing, scrapped the re­zon­ing plan. The school dis­trict ul­ti­mately dropped po­ten­tial new bound­aries to help bal­ance high school en­roll­ment in the south­east­ern part of the dis­trict be­cause of the ac­cel­er­ated open­ing of a new high school. But par­ents are still on edge.

Other school dis­tricts across the area have also felt the pains of re­zon­ing — Cy­press-Fair­banks ISD and Katy ISD re­cently ap­proved new at­ten­dance boundary plans. Some par­ents in Col­lege Sta­tion ISD are su­ing the dis­trict, claim­ing new at­ten­dance bound­aries vi­o­late the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“There’s no fair way to do it,” said Ger­a­lynn Prince, a par­ent at Hightower High School, about the Fort Bend dis­trict’s dis­cus­sion of re­zon­ing. “The whole dis­trict needs to be shifted. I feel like if you rip the Band-Aid off, do it all at once, let every­body feel the pain for a lit­tle while, we’ll all be mad to­gether and then we’ll move about our busi­ness.”

1 street, 3 schools

Elena Farah bought a house four years ago in the Avalon com­mu­nity, a lit­tle more than a mile away from Com­mon­wealth El­e­men­tary School in Fort Bend ISD. When she bought the home, she couldn’t reg­is­ter her child at Com­mon­wealth be­cause it was above ca­pac­ity.

Austin Park­way El­e­men­tary, the over­flow cam­pus, was also too full, and she was in­structed to send her child to Colony Bend, about 20 min­utes away. At one point, fam­i­lies on her street were send­ing chil­dren to three dif­fer­ent schools, de­pend­ing on when they moved into the neigh­bor­hood.

When talk­ing about the growth in Fort Bend, Farah men­tions the re­cently ap­proved bond is­sue as ev­i­dence that par­ents in the com­mu­nity are in­vested in pro­vid­ing their chil­dren with a good ed­u­ca­tion.

“We’re not try­ing to get good stuff on the cheap,” said Farah. “Peo­ple are will­ing to put the money to­wards schools. So yes, the dis­trict is grow­ing, but that’s not an ex­cuse for not fol­low­ing strate­gic di­rec­tion.”

Me­lanie An­barci, who has chil­dren at Fort Set­tle­ment Mid­dle School and Cle­ments High School, has no­ticed that over­crowd­ing per­sists even though the dis­trict so­lic­its com­mu­nity in­put and hires con­sul­tants to help set new at­ten­dance bound­aries.

“Rather than be­ing proac­tive, us­ing the in­for­ma­tion, the data, the steer­ing com­mit­tee, the com­mu­nity in­put and ac­tu­ally tak­ing ac­tion on it, we con­tinue to kick the can down the road,” she said. “In­stead of be­ing proac­tive, they are be­ing re­ac­tive. They end up in the sit­u­a­tion where you have over­crowd­ing for years, when it could’ve been avoided.”

Fort Set­tle­ment Mid­dle School has 1,551 stu­dents, the high­est en­roll­ment among Fort Bend ISD mid­dle schools, ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent dis­trict en­roll­ment data. Com­mon­wealth has 1,022 stu­dents, com­pared to some other dis­trict el­e­men­tary schools with 400 to 600 stu­dents.

Fort Set­tle­ment and Com­mon­wealth are pre­dicted to con­tinue to grow, based on the de­mo­graphic re­port. Still-de­vel­op­ing sub­di­vi­sions are gain­ing new res­i­dents as the older, built-out com­mu­ni­ties lose res­i­dents in Fort Bend, the re­port said.

Bound­aries re­viewed

The dis­trict as a whole con­tin­ues to grow. In 2005, Fort Bend ISD had 58 cam­puses with a lit­tle more than 62,000 stu­dents. In 2019, it has 80 cam­puses and more than 76,000 stu­dents.

In a re­sponse to ques­tions about the dis­trict’s re­zon­ing process, Fort Bend ISD said the 2018 bond is­sue in­cluded fund­ing for a new el­e­men­tary school to ad­dress over­crowd­ing at Com­mon­wealth, and the dis­trict was look­ing to pro­cure land for the school. At­ten­dance bound­aries for schools in the area, in­clud­ing First Colony and Fort Set­tle­ment mid­dle schools, are un­der re­view, the dis­trict said. New en­roll­ment at Com­mon­wealth El­e­men­tary is lim­ited to stu­dents who live within a two-mile ra­dius, ac­cord­ing to the dis­trict.

“As these new schools come on­line, we will con­tinue to mon­i­tor an­nual en­roll­ment pro­jec­tions (and) work with the com­mu­nity to es­tab­lish bound­aries,” the dis­trict said in a state­ment. “Mov­ing for­ward, we will also be work­ing to re­fine and im­prove our com­mu­nity en­gage­ment process as we ad­just bound­aries.”

Sconzo, whose or­ga­ni­za­tion rep­re­sents dozens of Texas school dis­tricts, un­der­stands the grow­ing pains Fort Bend ISD is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing. Hum­ble ISD had roughly dou­bled in pop­u­la­tion to 42,000 stu­dents when he re­tired in 2016. He said the dis­trict had to re­zone at times to keep up with the growth.

Kyle Shel­ton, di­rec­tor of strate­gic part­ner­ships at the Kin­der In­sti­tute for Ur­ban Re­search in Hous­ton, said more school dis­tricts might work in tan­dem with real es­tate de­vel­op­ers to plan for and re­spond to growth.

For ex­am­ple, in Alvin ISD, The Merid­i­ana com­mu­nity, in the Man­vel area, was built with an ed­u­ca­tion fo­cus, with learn­ing labs like The Merid­ian Tower and one named af­ter ac­claimed as­tronomer Galileo. The dis­trict plans to open a mid­dle school and a high school in the com­mu­nity in the com­ing years, funded by a re­cently ap­proved bond is­sue.

Like Fort Bend, Alvin ISD has dealt with rapid growth. Its en­roll­ment last year reached 25,000, with roughly 2,818 stu­dents added to the dis­trict in two years. Alvin ISD’s su­per­in­ten­dent, James “Buck” Gil­crease, said a re­cently ap­proved $480.5 mil­lion bond pack­age al­lowed the dis­trict to avoid re­draw­ing at­ten­dance bound­aries and in­stalling more por­ta­ble build­ings at schools.

Sconzo said Alvin ISD’s sit­u­a­tion is ideal but “far from the norm.” In Hum­ble, de­vel­op­ers were less in­ter­ested in col­lab­o­rat­ing be­cause they were able to sell homes with­out the school dis­trict’s help, he said.

We are Hightower

In other parts of Fort Bend ISD, some schools feel left be­hind. Prince sug­gests the dis­trict look at al­low­ing open en­roll­ment at schools with lower pop­u­la­tions, like at Hightower where the en­roll­ment is 2,000 stu­dents. If this didn’t at­tract enough stu­dents, the dis­trict could re­con­sider re­zon­ing, she said.

Prince feels pos­i­tive about send­ing her eighth-grader there next year, not­ing that she and other par­ents started a group, We are Hightower, to help ad­vo­cate for their school. She also has an older son who grad­u­ated from the high school a few years ago.

“Peo­ple move to the neigh­bor­hoods they move to for the schools for the most part,” said Prince. “Some of them be­cause the only thing you hear is usu­ally the bad stuff, they don’t want to go to cer­tain schools. We’ve got schools that have space avail­able.”

Sconzo said dis­tricts can make low-en­roll­ment schools more ap­peal­ing by ad­ding mag­net pro­grams. In his for­mer school dis­trict, of­fi­cials moved an early col­lege pro­gram to Hum­ble High School.

These strate­gies, though, might not be enough to over­come the op­po­si­tion of some stu­dents and par­ents.

Breeana Rusk, who faced the pos­si­bil­ity of be­ing re­zoned to Hightower, said she did not want to be sep­a­rated from friends and had been par­tic­i­pat­ing in band ac­tiv­i­ties with Ridge Point High School.

“We’re in a gated com­mu­nity,” said her mother, Julie Rusk, not­ing that homes in her devel­op­ment ranged in price from $400,000 to $600,000. “So when you buy that home you ex­pect to get cer­tain things with the area you’re buy­ing your home and one is a good school.”

Mark Mul­li­gan / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

A Fort Bend ISD board meet­ing on pos­si­bly shift­ing school bound­aries drew a big crowd on Jan. 22.

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