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Fort Worth ISD won’t consolidate these seven middle schools. What happens now?

In World
June 10, 2024

After the district’s school board abandoned a proposal to consolidate seven small and under-enrolled middle schools, officials in the Fort Worth Independent School District are moving forward with plans to renovate those campuses.

But that doesn’t mean some of those campuses won’t end up being shuttered anyway, district officials said.

Fort Worth ISD is in the middle of a $2 million study looking at how its facilities line up with its needs at a time when enrollment is declining. A report from that study, including recommendations for school closures, is expected to go before the board sometime this winter. District spokeswoman Jessica Becerra said it “would not be safe to assume” that none of the seven campuses included in the consolidation proposal will show up again on the school closures list.

FWISD floats middle school consolidations

Earlier this year, district officials floated the idea of consolidating the seven middle schools targeted for renovations as a part of the 2021 bond issue — Morningside, William James, Daggett, Kirkpatrick, J.P. Elder and McLean middle schools, plus McLean 6th Grade Center — into three larger campuses. District officials suggested that using the bond money to build new consolidated schools might make more sense than investing in renovations to schools the district may end up closing in the coming years.

But after holding a series of community meetings and collecting public input, the district’s school board dropped the proposal last month with no explanation. After more than two dozen parents and community members spoke against the plan at a May 28 school board meeting, Board President Camille Rodriguez announced the board would pull the proposal from that evening’s agenda.

District officials collected feedback from parents, school employees and other community members during and after the community listening sessions. In all three pyramids, large majorities of those who responded said they opposed the consolidation plan, according to district records obtained through an open records request.

Among other issues, respondents worried about the logistics of busing students from other neighborhoods to the new consolidated campuses, the challenge for students of adapting to larger schools and the fact that district officials were looking to make major changes to a plan voters had already approved. One parent in the Paschal High School pyramid said community members felt misled by the proposed change.

“We voted to improve the existing school,” the parent wrote. “Not knock it down and add more kids.”

Fort Worth ISD faces enrollment declines

Fort Worth ISD’s enrollment has dropped 17% since 2016 due to a combination of factors, including declining birth rates, housing patterns and increasing competition from charter schools. But those declines haven’t affected all schools equally.

Line Chart

Daggett, the smallest of the seven schools considered for consolidation, has seen relatively stable enrollment over the past five years, according to district records. The other six campuses have seen enrollment declines in recent years, although some have been more deeply affected than others. William James’ enrollment has dipped by about 8.7% since the 2019-20 school year, while both Morningside and J.P. Elder have lost about 36% of their enrollments during the same period.

Likewise, some schools are more severely under enrolled than others, district records show. Daggett’s enrollment was nearly at capacity last year, while both Morningside and Kirkpatrick were half-empty.

Taundala Tindle has two kids enrolled at Morningside Middle School and a third who just finished eighth grade at Morningside and will start high school in the fall. She said she was relieved when the board decided not to move forward with the consolidation plan. Tindle is a single mom and doesn’t have reliable transportation, so she was worried about how she would get her kids to a new consolidated middle school in another neighborhood. The change would have presented one more challenge families like hers didn’t need, she said.

“We’re already going through enough trying to raise our kids, guide them and give them structure,” she said.

Tindle said she was also upset that the district was considering demolishing the 70-year-old school. Tindle attended Morningside herself, and she sees it as a historical landmark for the south side. She acknowledged that test scores at the school have lagged in recent years — only 17% of students scored on grade level in reading on last year’s state test — but she said teachers at the school genuinely care about their students and are working hard to help them improve.

Layne Craig, the mother of a student who recently completed eighth grade at Daggett Middle School, was one of several speakers who asked the board not to move forward with the consolidation plan at last month’s meeting. Craig, who teaches literature courses at Texas Christian University, told the board the move would widen existing inequalities and force some students to commute further to school.

Craig told the Star-Telegram that she was relieved when the board decided not to move forward with the consolidation plan. Rather than closing neighborhood schools where enrollment is declining, Craig said she hopes to see the district promote them in the same way that it does its schools of choice. District officials have highlighted those specialized campuses over the past several years in hopes of appealing to families who might otherwise opt for private schools or charter schools.

The problem, Craig said, is that schools of choice only serve a comparatively small number of students. Most students in the district still go to neighborhood schools. She thinks the district under-invests in those schools as it works to keep families from choosing other schools outside the district.

“I think that we can have that kind of success and that kind of investment and culture of achievement in our neighborhood schools,” she said.

Under-enrolled schools present challenges

There are compelling reasons a district might want to keep smaller schools open rather than consolidating them, said Sarah Woulfin, a professor in the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin. While larger campuses may be more cost-effective to operate, there’s research that indicates that students do better in schools of about 400 students, she said. Students in smaller schools have an easier time forming positive relationships with adults, she said, because they’re less likely to get lost in the crowd.

But Woulfin said it makes a difference whether those 400 students go to a school that’s designed for 400 students or 800 students. There are certain costs like plumbing, air conditioning and maintenance that remain about the same whether a school is at capacity or it’s half-empty, she said. Students in those under-enrolled schools could still get the educational benefits of a smaller campus size, she said, but only if district leaders can provide staffing and programs to give those kids a good experience — something that becomes more financially challenging as enrollments decline.

Likewise, there are challenges inherent in closing schools, Woulfin said. There’s evidence that parents and communities lose faith in their public school systems when districts close campuses. She pointed to school closures in Chicago and Oakland that indicated that led to pain and turmoil in the communities around those campuses.

“For some families, their neighborhood school, it’s a lighthouse. It’s a beacon,” she said. “It’s where parents went, it’s where grandparents went, it’s where their aunts went.”

Districts also often don’t save as much money as they expect when they close campuses, Woulfin said. Even if they merge smaller student groups into one larger consolidated campus, districts need the same number of teachers to work with those students, she said. And most of those costs that remain fixed as enrollment numbers decline don’t go away once campuses close, she said — districts still have to pay to maintain and secure vacant school buildings. If they want to offload those buildings, they need to pay real estate consultants to handle those sales, she said.

School closures may leave communities underserved

In some places, districts might decide to keep under-enrolled schools open because closing them would mean leaving their communities underserved, said Michael Hansen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy. In some neighborhoods, the next-closest school is miles away, creating a hardship for families, Hansen said. In other cases, a school closure would leave students entirely without educational options, he said.

That decision may sometimes be a temporary stopgap measure, he said: Officials in cities where charter schools are expanding quickly may expect new charter school campuses to open in those communities within a few years, easing the detrimental effects of the loss of the public schools. In some cases, districts have handed their underutilized buildings over to charter school operators, he said.

As school enrollment continues to decline nationwide, Hansen said he expects to see more districts forced to confront the question of what to do with half-empty school buildings. Traditional public schools have seen their enrollments dip since the beginning of the pandemic, and Hansen said there’s no indication that trend will reverse itself anytime soon.

The decision of whether to keep under-enrolled schools open or to close them is a difficult one for any school district, and tends to leave leaders with few easy options, Hansen said. But it’s a situation a growing number of school districts have grappled with already.

“Atlanta, St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit — we could go down the list,” he said. “Fort Worth is not unique here.”

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