In fast-growing Fort Worth, school leaders are fighting declining enrollment

Fort Worth is one of the nation’s fastest growing cities, yet enrollment at its largest school district has fallen by more than 3% in the past three years.

District leaders and education advocates point to several factors for the drop. The Fort Worth district, one of several school systems within the city, is largely landlocked, and central city development is centered on high-end urban dwellers.

Also, families have a growing number of school choices, including suburban districts, charter schools and private schools. About 9,200 students living in the Fort Worth school boundaries attend charter schools, according to a Fort Worth Star-Telegram analysis of state data. The district’s enrollment was 84,505 in 2018.

“People have an expectation of options,” said Starlee Coleman, chief executive officer of the Austin-based Texas Charter Schools Association. Coleman said Texas is experiencing a transformation in public schools driven by parents who want choices, and Fort Worth is latest urban district to undergo this change.

Declining enrollments in traditional public school systems can signal trouble. In critical cases, they can result in school closures, something Dallas and Austin have been grappling with in recent months. In Austin, the district tumbled in enrollment as neighboring suburban districts and public charter schools grew.

“I don’t think we are there,” said Art Cavazos, chief of district operations for Fort Worth schools.

He said the district plans to counter enrollment declines by attracting a new wave of young learners while retooling academic programs and modernizing schools.

“At the end of the day, it is a very personal decision for parents whether are they coming for Fort Worth or not,” he said. “We want them to know that they belong here and we want them here.”

Tarrant County’s largest school district

One needs only to look at a map of Fort Worth to find clues to the enrollment dips.

“All of this is what is growing like wildfire,” Cavazos said, pointing to portions of far north Fort Worth that include boundaries for Eagle Mountain-Saginaw, Keller and Northwest schools. “Suburban family homes are going up like wildfire.”

Fort Worth is the largest city in the school district, but more than a dozen school districts stretch into the city limits, including Aledo, Hurst-Euless-Bedford, Kennedale, Keller and Northwest.

With an enrollment of 24,000, the Northwest school district is one of the fastest growing in the state, adding 1,200 students a year. Three elementary schools are expected to open during the next three years, said spokeswoman Emily Conklin.

Sydney Cother Waits, a real estate agent who has children in the district, said young families are looking for affordable homes in high performing school districts. For many families, that means Northwest schools.

“They are not just buying a house they are buying a lifestyle,” Waits said, adding that many families research online to find out where they can find the best schools.

Much of the development in the Fort Worth school district is focused on condominiums for young professionals or empty-nesters. For example, while many condos were built in downtown Fort Worth, the development added about a dozen students to the district, Cavazos said.

Still, the Fort Worth school district has pockets of suburban growth to the east near Eastchase Parkway and to the west in the Benbrook area. New schools have gone up in those areas and there are plans for a new elementary school to serve the Benbrook area.

A push for more pre-K students

District leaders said they have experienced drops in students in the youngest grades.

During the 2012-2013 school year, 7,678 first-grade students enrolled in Fort Worth schools, the largest enrollment group in 15 years. But first grade enrollment has fallen 21% since then.

Typically, it is increases in the younger grades that help fuel enrollment growth in Fort Worth schools.

District officials hope that expanding the district’s pre-kindergarten program will help increase enrollment. Universal pre-kindergarten was a key piece of the 2013 bond program.

Growth in the pre-kindergarten enrollment gives the district hope: It’s at 5,300, up from 4,400 in 2013-14.

“That stemmed the tide a little bit,” said Mike Naughton, the district’s director of facility planning. “We have been able to increase that enrollment by a thousand students. That has helped to take the sting out of the decline we have seen in kindergarten and first grade.”

More school choices

Next fall, two public charter schools under the IDEA network will open in the Fort Worth area, including a campus on Cherry Lane in west Fort Worth.

That campus is likely to add to another trend — an increasing number of students who live in the Fort Worth school district but attend public charter schools. Those numbers have gone up in the last five school years from about 4,900 students to about 9,200.

Coleman said the growth of public charter schools in Tarrant County follows growth in Harris and Dallas counties, where there was a demand for safe schools and strong academic programs.

“Charter schools can serve that niche market for families,” Coleman said.

Coleman said the Fort Worth area has community leaders working to build academic choices for students, including the Fort Worth school district’s partnership with Texas Wesleyan University to create the Leadership Academy Network.

That effort recently received approval from the Texas Education Agency. Under the plan, Texas Wesleyan will operate and manage five Fort Worth campuses under the new network starting next school year. But the five schools will remain Fort Worth schools, will be staffed by district teachers and will serve about 3,000 students.

Alan Seay, chief executive officer of the International Leadership of Texas network of public charter schools, said they had a big expansion in Tarrant County in 2016. They have about 9,000 students in Tarrant County, including a campus in east Fort Worth.

Seay said they open schools in communities where community leaders and parent groups express interest in their program.

“They tell us that the thing that resonates with them is our mission,” Seay said, explaining that they want to educate future leaders who can speak Spanish, English and Mandarin Chinese. Their trilingual program, focus on leadership and physical fitness attracts many families, he said.

“I think it is a competitive environment. We are all trying to do the best for our kids,” Seay said.

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram