Demographers: Student population declines foreseen in south Austin ISD

Declining birth rates, the rising cost of housing and prevalence of protected lands in south Austin ISD is leading demographers to predict decreased student populations in certain attendance zones over the next 10 years.

“There is very little developable land left [in South Austin],” said Beth Wilson, assistant director in AISD’s office of facilities. “The days of the big subdivisions, like Circle C, are kind of gone.”

Released in January, AISD’s 2016-17 annual demographic report found that certain elementary, middle and high school attendance zones across the southern region will see resident student declines over the next 10 years, especially in areas where affordability issues will prevent an influx of new families.

Attendance zones located on the periphery of South and Southwest Austin will see a slight increase in resident students as families located in the center of the region transition to suburban neighborhoods, the report said.

“Young families may stay in Austin proper when their child is very young, but by the time they are old enough to ride a bike, they can’t afford to live there anymore,” Wilson said. “Then they move out to the suburbs, which is what is keeping Southwest Austin stable at the elementary level.”

The Critics
Some families, particularly those whose schools are located in neighborhoods where urban density is becoming more common, say the district’s projections are skewed by methodology misaligned with city building trends.

Ryan Turner, parent at Joslin Elementary School, pointed to several multifamily attached home builds in the Southwood neighborhood that did not count toward Joslin’s student population projections. When estimating how many children could result from future residential developments, the district only considers projects of 15 units or more.

“The district has to concede that we [in South Austin]have ample amounts of new and existing apartment units,” he said. “They can’t say there is nowhere for these people to live.”

But the district’s demographers assert the shift from single-family detached to multifamily attached housing will adversely affect future student growth. According to Wilson, this is based on data that indicates these types of builds are not family-friendly.

“Those [multifamily attached homes]are a very hot product,” Wilson said. “These are the junior executive homes for the happy hipsters. It’s a rare case we see families in them.”

For campuses like Joslin, which earlier this year was threatened with closure due to slight underenrollment, the inclusion of these smaller multi-family builds in population projections is vital to protect neighborhood schools, parents such as Turner say.

“There is no evidence to suggest that people who are going to live in those units will not have children,” Turner said.

Wilson said she has been in talks with members of the city’s planning commission to try to determine how CodeNEXT, which encourages density by providing incentives to developers, could shift the way the district predicts future student populations.

“We may want to alter our projections based on [CodeNEXT],” she said. “But when the city talks about increasing density, it’s often talking about the number of units on an acre of land; it’s not necessarily talking about the number of humans.”

Boundary shifts proposed
To resolve school enrollment issues, some district stakeholders have proposed shifting attendance boundaries. According to the annual report, “expected declines in enrollment would make the next few years an ideal time to realign boundaries to more closely conform to the district’s
demographics.”

Although shifting boundaries may seem like a logical solution, AISD trustee Yasmin Wagner, whose district covers South Central and Southwest Austin, said logistics often prevent this from happening.

“Some schools are extraordinarily underenrolled and some are bursting at the seams, but the proximity of those schools is so far apart that it is not as simple as changing a boundary to boost enrollment numbers,” she said.

Parents such as Turner argue campuses like Joslin, the oldest AISD elementary school south of Ben White Boulevard, have suffered due to attendance boundary changes used to create enrollment at new schools.

“The story is simple,” he said. “Joslin had such high enrollment that it could afford to be the donor and give away its attendance boundaries. What we have seen is that the district was so generous in trying to boost enrollment of new schools that in the end, it hurt Joslin.”

Longstanding attendance boundaries should be reviewed in light of new development, Wagner said, but shifting a boundary should be the last resort, as it tends to do more harm than good.

“It’s a careful balance between what you gain from refining those boundaries and the challenge you create for the families living within those attendance areas,” she said.

Boosting enrollment
Rich DePalma, a former AISD Facilities and Bond Planning Advisory Committee member and a South Austin resident, said instead of relying on a boundary change to boost enrollment, an emphasis should be placed on strong academic programming, which is more expensive to provide in a small schools like Joslin.

“Programming does drive attendance, but at the same time there is a Catch-22,” he said. “In order to afford programming, you have to have enough butts in the seats.”

The district has also increased its prekindergarten offerings to help increase enrollment at struggling schools.

In South Austin, 14 elementary campuses offer pre-K programs to resident students throughout the district. This year a new pre-K-3 unit at Joslin added 19 students to the school’s total enrollment, which not only resolved its slight underenrollment issue in the short term but could keep Joslin at capacity for years to come as those students matriculate through the school’s grade levels.

According to Jacquie Porter, early childhood director for AISD, nine of the children enrolled in Joslin’s pre-K-3 unit transferred in from outside of the school’s attendance boundary.

“Granting families the transfer from anywhere is a great enrollment strategy for getting students to stay and increase enrollment for the long term,” she said.

Other modernized enrollment strategies, such as combining two schools that offer different programming into one attendance zone, have also been floated by members of the AISD community. Chris Farley, co-chairman of the district’s boundary advisory committee and a South Austin resident, said options like this should remain on the table, especially in light of the city’s ever-changing demographics.

“Austin is known as a progressive, dynamic city,” he said. “I think it is important for AISD to have that same reputation by looking at the many options that might better education for our students.”

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From FOX 7's reporting partner, Community Impact.

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