In the predawn hours in downtown Marlin, dozens of children board buses with blinking yellow lights that shuttle the highest-performing students and state money away from the failing Marlin Independent School District.
Rosebud-Lott, Chilton and Groesbeck school districts, among others, all come at the request of some Marlin parents who, starting about four years ago, approached surrounding districts looking for better educations for their children.
“I had a mother that approached me from Marlin that . . . told me she’d like to have her child come to our district, but she just didn’t have transportation to get her here,” Groesbeck ISD Superintendent Harold D. Ramm said. “I believe the number that I gave her was if she could get 15 students over there, I thought we could send a bus. She came back with about 20-something immediately.”
The siphoning of high-performing students from Marlin is one of many factors that plague the struggling district.
The Texas Education Agency recently revoked Marlin ISD’s accreditation after years of failing academically. If Marlin’s administration doesn’t improve its academic rigor, the state has threatened to close the district in July.
Marlin ISD failed to meet state academic standards the past four years, bringing the total to five failing years out of the past 10.
State law dictates districts that fail financial or academic state standards four consecutive years must be closed.
Marlin’s administration requested an informal review by the commissioner of education, who could decide to reverse the closure. But if not, the district would have to appeal the decision at the State Office of Administrative Hearings, where a judge would render the final ruling.
The state would choose a contiguous district to take over Marlin ISD if the district’s efforts still couldn’t keep the campuses open. The new district could either instate staff in Marlin’s campuses or bus its students to other schools.
TEA Information Specialist Lauren Callahan said the commissioner will look at the enrollment capacity of the surrounding districts, along with their accountability and financial ratings.
But many parents didn’t want to wait for state intervention.
State records show Marlin ISD’s enrollment has declined steadily for the past five years, starting at 1,035 in the 2010-11 school year and dropping by 158 to 877 as of Monday.
The total number of Marlin students transferring to other districts in the 2014-15 school year was 226, the report shows.
The majority of the transfer students last school year traveled to Riesel ISD, which took 44; Chilton, which took 41 students; and Groesbeck and Rosebud-Lott ISDs, which each took 38.
Marlin resident Penny Parsons said she enrolled her eighth-grade son in Chilton ISD three years ago after he moved from Waco to live with her.
Her son previously attended Marlin Primary Academy for kindergarten, but she ultimately refused to re-enroll him in the district.
Parsons said her son’s teacher couldn’t control her class and the students were unruly.
“Any time I was near that classroom, it was loud and out of control,” she said.
Students are eligible to transfer from Marlin under the state’s Public Education Grant Program, which allows students to leave a school “with passing rates on the (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness tests) that are less than or equal to 50 percent,” or received failing campus ratings in the past two years.
The surrounding districts say they don’t accept all Marlin students who apply.
“We do try to check and make sure that they’re going to be good, that they’re not going to be disruptive,” Ramm said. “And, by and large, we haven’t had a problem so far.”
Rosebud-Lott Superintendent Don Hancock said in order to transfer into his district, students must pass the STAAR exams and have good attendance records with few discipline referrals.
The loss of high-performing students is a double-whammy for Marlin ISD, hurting its academic standing and its bottom line, as fewer students means less state funding.
Marlin ISD receives an average of $7,700 per student per year from the state. The transfers of 226 students in the 2014-15 school year cost the district $1,740,200 in state revenue.
“It affects everything,” Marlin ISD Superintendent Michael Seabolt said. “It affects budget. It affects test scores because, I promise you, the ones they’re taking are the children who pass the test. Imagine what would happen if you had 200 or 300 passing test scores back. We probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.”