With new development focused on the outskirts of Waco and a handful of underperforming schools in the city, enrollment in Waco ISD has remained flat for the past six years, while other districts and charter schools have seen significant growth.

Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson has been vocal since he started this summer about his desire to keep children in the district and to attract new ones, despite challenges. More than 80 percent of Waco ISD students are economically disadvantaged, and six schools in the district failed the most recent state academic accountability standards.

School competition is significant, Nelson said. Residential growth is feeding new students, and new state and local money, to surrounding districts, and charter schools are actively recruiting Waco ISD students, he said.

“If you look at my background, I’ve worked in places like McKinney and Pflugerville. These are the model of suburban areas attracting people away from the city to this quieter life, to this family-friendly environment,” Nelson said. “I can’t really compete with the fact that people can buy 1- and 2-acre lots and build a beautiful home on it and the schools in those districts are good.

“That’s not something I can compete with. The problem is, not everybody can go buy 2 acres out in Hewitt. In my opinion, the future of our city is not tied to student achievement by students who have two parents at home, two college educated parents.”

Waco enrollment has plateaued at a little less than 15,000 in recent years, according to Texas Education Agency data. An average of 2,109 students living in Waco ISD boundaries have attended another district or charter school each year as a transfer since 2012, according to a recent demographic study the district commissioned. The top schools students transfer to include Midway ISD, Bosqueville ISD, Robinson ISD, Harmony Science Academy and Rapoport Academy.

Connally ISD is the only other district in the county with a school that failed the most recent state accountability standards.

Midway ISD has grown from 7,189 students six years ago to almost 7,900 last year. China Spring ISD has grown from 2,387 students to 2,700 in that time. China Spring Superintendent Marc Faulkner, who has been there 14 years, said he expects the district will need to pass a bond in the next two to three years.

“When I first came, pretty much from the airport to here, there was nothing,” Faulkner said. “Now, it’s built up and all of it’s the city of Waco. It has changed tremendously, and I think that’s a big factor.”

Part of Midway and China Spring ISDs’ growth can be attributed to the availability of land that is easy to develop with housing attractive to families with young children, Waco planning services director Clint Peters said.

In Waco’s core, most new residents are young professionals, empty-nesters or those who have latched onto the popularity of “Fixer Upper,” and Magnolia, he said.

“Some of our issue, historically, is we’re growing at 1 percent, but some of it is just being shifted from the core into other parts of the county,” Peters said. “We’re still getting more people coming into the county than leaving. … I really want to see what’s happened since Magnolia, because I think it’s going to bear out that we’re having this huge growth spurt, but we don’t have the data yet because it’s so new. ”

Bringing more students into the center of Waco is difficult to address from the city perspective, he said.

“From a city standpoint, you want it to be balanced, but it’s not like we’re out recruiting housing that’s going to be for families over housing for empty-nesters,” Peters said.

Waco ISD gets a new student for about every three new homes built and about every four apartment units built in the district, according to its demographic study. It expects to see average growth of 0.3 percent annually for the next five years, or a net growth of 235 students, according to the study.

Waco ISD saw a significant demographic shift starting in 1974 with reactions to court-ordered busing intended to integrate schools that remained effectively segregated because of segregated attendance zones. Mostly white Waco ISD students filled private schools and surrounding areas.

Waco’s enrollment dropped from 18,300 to 13,200 by 1985. In the same decade, Midway grew by more than 2,200 students.

By 2004, Waco ISD was 17 percent white in a county that is 65 percent white. Today the district is a little less than 9 percent white, but Nelson said poverty is the biggest issue, not race.

“When you look all the way back to the desegregation order, which I’ve studied here in Waco, there were larger numbers of Anglo students,” Nelson said. “I’m not even refuting the fact that has steadily declined. Having said that, this office talks about all kids, and when I get to 15,000, I don’t go back and say, ‘How many of those are white? How many of those are black?’ It’s about every kid we’ve got. … Poverty is the issue. It’s not race.”

In addition to the pull from surrounding public schools, private schools and public charter schools in the city also represent competition for Waco ISD, Nelson said.

Though official numbers aren’t in for enrollment this school year, Cesar Chavez Middle School is down 50 to 60 students, and a Harmony campus has seen an increase of about 200 students, Nelson said.

“Ray Charles could tell you where those kids came from,” he said. “That’s from them working those neighborhoods, and we’ve got a lot to do in that area because our kids are being recruited.”

Harmony Public Schools doesn’t keep track of where students come in from, Harmony spokesperson Timothy Lankford said.

Harmony opened a second Waco school this year because its first campus was busting at the seams. Enrollment at harmony grew from 663 students in 2011 to 765 last school year, according to TEA data.

With the second campus, the charter school system can accommodate more than 1,000 students in the area, Lankford said.

Rapoport Academy, a public charter that focuses heavily on serving economically disadvantaged students, has almost doubled its enrollment in the past six years. It added a second elementary school in 2013, and its growth has been planned strategically, Superintendent Alexis Neumann said.

It had 460 students in the 2011-12 school year and 818 students last school year. The school caps each grade level at 68 students, which doesn’t leave much room for further growth, Neumann said. It receives students from all over, but mostly from the northeast side of town, she said.

“We’re very rigorous in our academics, very vigorous in our behavior expectations. We’re a college prep school for pre-k through 12, make no mistake about it,” Nuemann said. “We have a wide variety of students we serve, and we’re a public school to the truest sense of the word and we’re open enrollment to the truest sense of the word. Wherever students are, we bring them in and work with them to get them college ready as quickly as possible.”

Official enrollment numbers won’t be available until the end of October, but initial enrollment numbers for the new school year at Waco ISD are close to 15,000, Nelson said.

Nelson acknowledged any parent truly interested in the academic success of their child is going to see challenges when it comes to Waco ISD. And he knows that means parents will evaluate all their options to find the best place for their child, he said.

The district has plans in place to tip the scales back in its favor.

Officials have been working to increase dual credit and advanced placement opportunities and have a renewed push to recognize academic accomplishments and drive a focus on academics in the classroom. The district is also expanding its vocational schools, the Greater Waco Advanced Manufacturing Academy and the Greater Waco Advanced Health Care Academy, and has applied for a $9 million grant for an arts and humanities magnet school.

“I’m just trying to keep it real. There are two sides to it, and we’ve got to do a better job of making our schools attractive because yeah, we’re competing,” Nelson said. “And everybody’s wanting inner-city Waco kids for whatever reason, whether it’s because of the housing market or growth. We’re landlocked, so we’re not going to be growing like we may have been in the ’50s and the ’60s. It’s just not going to happen. It may happen in Robinson and Midway, and God bless those kids, but we’re going to work with who shows up.”

Change in enrollment for McLennan County Schools, 2011-2016

Waco ISD’s enrollment has remained largely flat in the past six years as some students have transferred to other growing districts in the area. Here’s a glance at enrollment trends in some local districts and charters. (Source: Texas Education Agency enrollment reports)

School 2011-12 2012-13 2013-14 2014-15 2015-16 2016-2017 Change, 2011-2016 % change
Waco ISD 15329 15218 14894 14976 14943 15079 -250 -1.63%
Axtell ISD 768 782 769 781 791 784 16 2.08%
Bosqueville ISD 627 617 614 617 654 675 48 7.66%
Bruceville-Eddy ISD 796 784 758 776 768 721 -75 -9.42%
China Spring ISD 2387 2392 2449 2458 2599 2696 309 12.95%
Connally ISD 2345 2393 2342 2328 2329 2363 18 0.77%
Crawford ISD 588 569 561 581 554 543 -45 -7.65%
Gholson ISD 146 199 244 246 244 252 106 72.60%
Hallsburg ISD 108 135 150 152 172 172 64 59.26%
Harmony Science 663 724 723 762 774 765 102 15.38%
La Vega ISD 2913 2880 2923 2966 3031 3114 201 6.9%
Lorena ISD 1639 1650 1665 1671 1702 1695 56 3.42%
Marlin ISD 1078 984 958 943 877 867 -211 -19.57%
Mart ISD 575 556 485 489 510 527 -48 -8.35%
McGregor ISD 1357 1359 1393 1370 1422 1455 98 7.22%
Midway ISD 7189 7350 7456 7664 7803 7898 709 9.86%
Moody ISD 699 654 675 696 676 666 -33 -4.72%
Oglesby ISD 162 162 167 184 165 158 -4 -2.47%
Rapoport Academy 460 569 719 779 805 818 358 77.83%
Riesel ISD 578 608 588 594 598 612 34 5.88%
Robinson ISD 2212 2247 2272 2319 2291 2302 90 4.07%
Valley Mills ISD 651 621 613 617 618 623 -28 -4.30%
Waco Charter School 231 262 213 218 217 202 -29 -12.55%
West ISD 1463 1445 1369 1361 1315 1331 -132 -9.02%

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times as the 2010 TCCJA Journalist of the Year.

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