Making Sense of City Growth, ISD Decline

Fort Worth museum | Image by Philip Lange/Shutterstock

Fort Worth has been a magnet for newcomers, but its local public school system has not been.

The declining student body at Fort Worth ISD may come as a surprise given Cowtown’s recent growth, yet there are many factors behind it, as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported. While the city has an annual growth rate of 1.96%, according to World Population Review, the number of Fort Worth ISD students dipped from 87,233 in 2016 to 72,783 in 2023.

District officials have been grappling with considerable issues due to the district’s shrinking student body, as extensively covered by The Dallas Express. On February 13, non-teaching staff cuts were announced to address a $43.6 million budget shortfall while simultaneously protecting programs and resources aimed at boosting student achievement results.

Last year, Fort Worth ISD commissioned a $2 million capacity study to identify areas where potential adjustments could be made to its under-utilized facilities and where resources could be better allocated. The results of this study are still pending, but roughly four dozen campuses were recently declared as being under 70% capacity and thus at risk of closure.

District officials have remained optimistic about being able to “right the ship” by making changes that will attract students and parents, such as by shining a spotlight on its schools of choice, including the Applied Learning Academy.

Yet the factors at play are multifold and thus may require several different responses. Here is a rundown of some of the main reasons why Fort Worth ISD might be struggling to attract and retain students:

Lackluster Student Achievement Results

Fort Worth ISD saw just 32% of its students score at grade level on the STAAR exam during the 2021-2022 school year, according to the latest Texas Education Agency accountability report. This is worse than struggling Dallas ISD, which saw only 41% of students score at grade level on the STAAR exam that school year and the state average of 48%.

However, Fort Worth ISD did beat its neighbor with an on-time graduation rate of 85.7%, while almost 20% of Dallas ISD’s graduating Class of 2022 did not graduate on time. Statewide, the average rate of graduation within four years was 90%.

Charter School Competition

The emergence of new charter schools in the Fort Worth area has resulted in greater competition for students, whose parents often cite Fort Worth ISD’s weak academic performance or past controversies as contributing to their decision to pull their children out. There are an estimated 64 free charter schools in the city serving around 18,000 students.

These education alternatives tend to offer more flexible academic environments that might benefit certain types of students. For instance, Lisa Henley’s granddaughter Makenzie has dyslexia and was struggling and withdrawn while attending Fort Worth ISD’s Hazel Harvey Peace Elementary School, Henley told the Star-Telegram. She now goes to a charter school called the Academy of Visual and Performing Arts and has improved in many ways.

“Now, she wants to learn,” said Henley. “She wants to be able to stand up and show her work.”

Growth Outside Fort Worth ISD’s Attendance Zone

However, David Saenz, Fort Worth ISD’s chief of strategic initiatives and partnerships, suggested that competition from charter schools is not factoring in as much as one might think, according to the Star-Telegram. He explained how this past school year saw considerably fewer parents pulling their students out of the district to place them in charter schools.

Fort Worth’s population growth has actually occurred in northern and southern neighborhoods outside of Fort Worth ISD’s attendance zone. A total of 16 public school districts serve the city. Future growth is projected in some areas that include Fort Worth ISD’s boundaries, yet whether this will include many new residents with school-aged children is unlikely, according to Paul Epperley, the vice president of the Greater Fort Worth Association of Realtors, the Star-Telegram reported.

Suburban areas of Fort Worth tend to have more cost-advantageous housing options and thus are more attractive to families, according to Epperley.

Nationwide Downward Trajectory

The decline seen in student enrollment figures is not limited to Fort Worth ISD, with similar trends seen on the regional, state, and national levels, as previously covered by The Dallas Express. The United States has seen a steady population decline, with lower birth rates resulting in a shrinking population of school-age children.

Moreover, higher housing and borrowing costs have been driving young families to certain attendance zones, which can be favorable for some but disadvantageous for many.

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