Can public schools survive the pandemic enrollment fallout?

9 News Investigates

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — Three hundred-six days and counting — the last time most El Paso school-age children last stepped foot into a classroom before the pandemic shut much of El Paso down and changed the way teachers interact with their students forever.

Now, as time marches on, it’s becoming clear how many parents and students opted not to return to public school online. Even worse — it’s exposing how much is at stake for the future of public education in El Paso.

Data obtained for this story shows bleeding enrollment in El Paso and Ysleta school districts. Simultaneously, local charter schools claim they’ve picked up many students whose parents believe public school is no longer a wise choice during the pandemic.

Since 2018, Ysleta Independent School District’s enrollment dropped by 3,068 students, and El Paso Independent School District enrollment fell by 6,367 students. The city’s other large district, Socorro Independent School District, managed to gain 455 students. Most of SISD’s gains came in the 2019-2020 school year before the pandemic hit.

Where did those students in EPISD and YISD go? How will school districts manage to balance budgets with dwindling enrollment? What does this mean for the future of public education in El Paso County?

KTSM 9 News set out to answer these questions to give the public a better idea of what the school system will be experiencing in the years to come.

EPISD was already hemorrhaging students by the time the pandemic struck in the spring of 2020. From the 2018–2019 to 2019–2020 school year, EPISD lost 2,617 students. The following year, in 2020–2021, another 3,750 students unenrolled from the district, for a total of 6,367 — or 11 percent.

Many of those students transferred to other districts, others enrolled in charter schools. Still, others appear to be missing entirely.

EPISD Board Trustee Freddy Klayel-Avalos said the district believes a small group of students may have been living internationally in Juárez and could not attend once borders closed and learning went online.

“We actually do assume that there were also people, like not a very large group, but there was enough of a group that close to the end of last school year of 19–20, just didn’t bother coming back,” Klayel-Avalos said.

EPISD Spokesperson Melissa Martinez said there is no true way to pin-point where the students go, but she said historically the district has seen a drop. However, she said for EPISD and nationwide, Pre-K students are the most declining. Pre-K is not mandatory in Texas.

“A lot of parents felt it was best to keep them home this year and it was a lot to navigate for little ones in a virtual setting,” Martinez said.

YISD Board Secretary Kathryn Lucero said part of the problem with identifying how many international students were unable to re-enroll is that their addresses on file are usually of a guardian in the U.S.

“I was told because we don’t enroll students internationally, many enroll with their El Paso guardians, that data is really hard to pin down,” Lucero said.

The charter flight

Meanwhile, growing charter schools nearly doubled their enrollment in the 2020–2021 school year. IDEA public schools tell us they went from 1,944 enrolled at their nine campuses across El Paso in 2019–2020 to 3,753 in the 2020–2021 school year — an increase of 1,809 in a single school year. 

Students’ loss to charter schools is alarming for Klayel-Avalos, who says a continuum of education is lost when students opt for charter schools over public education.

“So even if they go to charter schools, all roads lead back to EPISD at the high school level. So, with our curriculum, and we and I will go ahead and be bold enough to say that our curriculum is much better because we do follow the State curriculum. We do have certified teachers, whereas charter schools honestly have to certify teachers. By the time [students] go back to our curriculum, they could be at a severe disadvantage because they’ve been in a completely different curriculum based on the charter model. And they have no choice but to come back to us anyway,” Klayel Avalos explained. “If a continuity in what they’re learning year to year is important to families, they will be at a significant disadvantage, in terms of continuity, by the time they go back to high school because they won’t be following a curriculum.”

Charter schools such as Burnham Wood see things differently. They believe their classrooms offer a flexible and safe alternative to public school — especially in the pandemic. Students at Burnham Wood have been able to opt into returning to the school since the semester began and officials say there have been no confirmed COVID-19 cases spread among students or staff.

Burnham Wood, just like IDEA Public Schools, opened a new campus in the 2019 school year. Superintendent Dr. Joe Gonzales said they had more parents than they expected in the 2020 school year, so they added more classrooms. He said the Far East and Northwest El Paso sites are the fastest-growing campuses.

“A lot has to do with face-to-face instruction,” Gonzales said. “Parents are in a hard situation, taking their kids to school and trying to keep a job, so I’m glad we can offer a safe place for their kids.”

Lucero and Klayel-Avalos both said they’re aware charter schools are the biggest threat to funding the public school system and the virus merely accelerated the losses felt by the growing number of education options in El Paso.

Lucero said she learned this year’s losses to charter schools was around 300 total in YISD.

“We had a task force meeting about combating charter schools in the El Paso area. We need to be part of this. I believe that public schools need to fight to keep them out of — to keep charter schools at bay,” said Lucero. “It needs to be a united front from all school districts here. All the districts, regardless of our competition, our biggest competition is the charters.”

Shrinking enrollment in lower grades

As a 2020 article in Borderzine pointed out, the majority of the school’s losses come in lower grades — namely pre-k and kindergarten.

Borderzine reported a 5,000-student drop in kindergarten through second grade since the 2011–2012 school year. The trend only worsened under the threat of the pandemic and parents who opted not to keep their young children in front of a screen for multiple hours.

“We’re aware of where we think they went, the outstanding majority of the kids, we have lost our kids in pre-K and kindergarten. That’s whose parents just don’t (enroll), because it’s not a requirement, especially for pre-K, since it’s not a requirement to take pre-K, they just didn’t want to bother with it,” Klayel-Avalos said.

“Our biggest loss is in the pre-K area. That is all of our districts. So, we’ve lost, yes, the other grade levels, but all the districts in pre-K have been the largest,” said Lucero.

EPISD trustees were told only about 200 students un-enrolled from the district. The majority “just didn’t come back” or never enrolled in lower grades, according to Klayel-Avalos. The losses total about 6.8 percent from the 2019–2020 school year to the 2020–2021 school year.

Balancing the budgets

One of EPISD and YISD’s largest remaining questions is how enrollment losses will affect the bottom line.

The TEA issued guidance for the 2020 fall semester, granting a grace period of one semester to allow enrollment numbers to normalize before funding is allocated.

At YISD, the cost of utility and transportation savings might make up for a portion of the enrollment shortfalls.

“It does also have to do with our transportation costs are even some of our utility costs, although we do have administrators that have been on campus and teachers have the option so far as to this month,” Lucero explained.

“We haven’t obviously traveled as far as our sports are invested in. But the other thing due to the pandemic, such as, usually we would pay for cost before travel. Because besides just, for example, our track team, our football team, when they travel, usually you would have the band go, you’d have cheerleaders attend things like that. And because of the pandemic, that’s not occurring at this point,” she said. “So, things like that. So, there are other areas where we see it, so cost savings. It’s not dramatic. It’s like a not a huge, huge thing, you know, to fill in the gaps that the pre-K losses last, but it’s definitely it definitely is assisting.”

EPISD has refinanced approximately $30 million in debt in the last two years. Klayel-Avalos said this year’s enrollment declines equates to another $25 million loss for the district.

“So, it’s very alarming. It’s a loss of money that would have gone to teacher salaries first; administrators, amendment principals,” said Klayel-Avalos. “I don’t mean Central Office; like principals, counselors, and then it takes away from the available resources have to buy programs for the kids. It’s gonna eat into our budget — we’re gonna have to dip into the general fund.”

EPISD spokesperson Melissa Martinez said as a pandemic was not anticipated, the district found ways to make cuts in the budget and not lose employees.

“We took a measure to the board last month and that included budget reduction, so we did cut budgets across the board, departmental budgets and that was through various measures,” Martinez said. “One cut was travel, student travel, that wasn’t happening much so we were able to do it there, supplies because we have been virtual so we did take a cut across the board in order to balance the budget this year.”

The future

As the number of charter schools and declining students in lower grades continues for El Paso’s two landlocked public school districts, leaders wonder what will happen once students return to the classroom.

“We have to reconcile the problem at hand first, which is, you know, safety for students, and the safe transition back into classrooms,” said Klayel-Avalos. “But before COVID started, we did have a couple of plans in place to attract more students. I think we’re just gonna have to piggyback on those four or five, but let’s try to create more advertising, essentially. So I don’t expect the district to advertise at the level, I’m sure you’ve seen the idea billboards on the sponsored content on Facebook and social media.”

YISD is looking short-term too, but say they know their district is landlocked and aging. They rely on their community learning approach to attract students from outside the district to bolster enrollment. 

“We’re well-aware that we’re losing students. In fact, we project that as a yearly loss. We’ve been losing students consistently over the past, I don’t know, five, six years,” said Lucero.

But don’t expect YISD to build in a marketing budget to gain those students back anytime soon.

“We just do things differently here. I would say we kind of are consistent with the way things are in the Valley. It’s just a different, I guess, more humble approach,” she said. 

YISD Superintendent Dr. Xavier De La Torre said TEA helped in the Fall semester by providing waivers so districts could continue online without losing funding. He said YISD could’ve lost up to $16 million in revenue from enrollment drops.

“Now we’re not getting that same latitude the second semester, in fact the State and the Texas Education Agency are asking us to make school available for anyone who is comfortable coming back to school or risk losing revenue,” De La Torre said.

Both EPISD and YISD told KTSM they would like to seek assistance from the State and elected officials to help provide funding.

“So in that regard we could use support from local elected officials to get us more waivers or a ‘hold harmless’ for the rest of the year given the unprecedented circumstances,” De La Torre said.

Officials with both EPISD and YISD said they will not review new budgets until 2021.

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