The Waco Independent School District is looking for ways to attract and retain more students, after a demographic study showed the district has been steadily losing students to charter schools and surrounding school districts.

For the past eight years, Waco ISD has seen enrollment jump up and drop back down again, without ever rebounding to its 2011-12 school year enrollment of 15,329 students, said Bob Templeton with Templeton Demographics.

Current enrollment for this school year is 14,907 students, up slightly from last school year with 14,772 students, according to the demographer.

Templeton provided the school board with a presentation of his report during a school board workshop meeting last week. His report covered the past eight years of enrollment.

“The biggest factor is the charter school expansions in Waco,” Templeton said. “They are pulling kids out of the Waco school district.”

Charter schools, like Harmony and Rapoport Academy, pull more students from Waco ISD as they continue to expand than surrounding school districts, he said. Some parents pull their children out of Waco ISD schools because of the school’s performance, and they view charter schools as an opportunity for a different educational environment.

Waco ISD received an overall B rating from the state this year. Of the 22 Waco ISD schools that were rated, five received B’s, including both University High School and Waco High School. Seven others received C’s, and seven received F’s. No campus received an A rating.

The district tends to lose students in elementary school, especially in first through fourth grades, Templeton said. They transfer to charter schools or other school districts, particularly Midway and China Spring, where most of the housing development in the county is happening.

“We do tend to see a charter return for high school,” he said. “A lot of time charter schools don’t have the breadth of offerings as local high schools, like fine arts and athletics and other extracurricular activities.”

Right now, Waco ISD is serving about 60% of school-age children in the district’s boundaries, according to the report, which uses American Community Survey data to formulate estimates. Based on that data, there are 24,912 school-age children in the boundary of Waco ISD, while enrollment is at about 14,900 students.

That means the other 40% of school-age children are attending charter or private schools, transferring to other districts, or being home-schooled, Templeton said. There is no way to calculate how many students are home-schooled.

Last school year, Waco ISD enrolled 14,772 students. Another 2,512 transfer students living in Waco ISD’s boundaries attended charter schools or other school districts that year.

“That’s higher than what we see with most of our clients,” Templeton said.

The eight charter school campuses in Waco ISD’s boundaries enrolled 2,445 students last school year, an increase of 95 students from two years ago, according to the report. The two Harmony campuses had the highest enrollment at 1,140 students.

Templeton said “top districts” can enroll between 90% and 95% of the school-age children in their areas, but “nobody gets 100%.” He said 90% would be extraordinary and include districts that have little to no charter school competition, such as Carroll ISD in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb of Southlake.

Waco ISD resembles an urban school district in that it enrolls 60% of potential students, Templeton said. Districts like Fort Worth, Austin and Grand Prairie share similar “capture rates.”

In 2012, Waco ISD saw its enrollment drop from 15,329 to 15,221 students, according to Templeton Demographics. The district saw a significant drop in 2013, when enrollment fell to 14,894 students.

That same year, 2,184 transfer students living in Waco ISD attended another school district or charter school, according to the report. Most transfers, 627 students, attended Harmony Science Academy. Another 509 transfer students from Waco ISD went to Rapoport Academy that year. Both are charter schools.

Out of the school district transfers in 2013, 188 students attended Midway ISD, according to the report. Only 179 transfer students from other districts attended Waco ISD that year.

Some of the factors potentially driving away students could include the age of Waco ISD’s campuses, a problem Austin ISD also faces, Templeton said. This may be the time for the district to provide some new facilities and programs that would increase enrollment, he said.

Waco ISD Superintendent Susan Kincannon said at the board workshop that the district will work with Templeton Demographics to examine certain “pockets” of the school-age population and meet with architects to look strategically at the entire district to identify areas of improvement. That could include the placement of schools, reorganization of facilities and new programs and where they might work best.

Kincannon said she has already asked the Austin-based O’Connell Robertson architecture firm to work on a capacity study of all the district’s facilities so the district can look at growth and capacity together, while considering options for the future.

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Brooke Crum joined the Tribune-Herald as the education reporter in January 2019. She has worked for the Springfield News-Leader in Missouri, Abilene Reporter-News, Beaumont Enterprise and the Port Arthur News. Crum graduated from TCU in Fort Worth.

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