Area families resist school boundary changes
Fort Bend ISD is the latest to consider rezoning as growth skews enrollments
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.
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.”
A Fort Bend ISD board meeting on possibly shifting school boundaries drew a big crowd on Jan. 22.