Fort Worth is a growing city approaching 1 million people. That growth, though, is not translating to the number of students attending the city’s largest school district.

Fort Worth ISD’s enrollment has dropped for the fifth consecutive year, according to enrollment data recently released by district officials. As of Monday, 75,385 students attend Fort Worth ISD schools. That represents a 13.8% decline since the district’s all-time high enrollment of 87,428 students in the 2016-17 school year.

Declining enrollment is not a symptom of a single reason — it’s caused by multiple, each with its own complexities. 

Jo Beth Jimerson, associate professor of educational leadership at Texas Christian University’s College of Education, pinpointed several potential causes for Fort Worth ISD’s enrollment drop. They range from the pandemic and shifting populations to the perception of schools and parents wanting a better fit for their children.

“You have a lot of different reasons that aren’t mutually exclusive, but sometimes there’s some intersections of those kinds of things happening,” Jimerson said.

In a statement, Fort Worth ISD said it is experiencing an enrollment decline just like many other districts across Texas and the nation.

“There’s no complete picture yet as to the reasons why, but most agree the losses are likely tied directly or indirectly to the pandemic, as well (as) charter competition across Tarrant County,” the statement said.

This drop is happening as the number of people who are generally at an age to begin having children has increased across Fort Worth, said Kyle Walker, director of TCU’s Center for Urban Studies. Walker analyzed the trend using the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Currently, the only census data available details voting age population as well as race and ethnicity, information lawmakers and other decision makers need as they redraw political maps.

As the district’s enrollment decreases, the number of people living inside it has grown 10% in the past decade, according to census data reviewed by district officials. The district’s population is 513,333; 10 years ago, it was 466,910.

Pandemic plunge

One of the more obvious reasons for the slip is the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Jimerson pointed out it’s an issue that cuts multiple ways, with some parents concerned about health and safety protocols and others upset at those policies.

Fort Worth ISD saw its enrollment drop dramatically last school year mostly because of parents electing to keep their pre-K- and kindergarten-aged students at home. Both grades are optional in Texas.

Fort Worth ISD this summer pushed hard to get those children enrolled. However, days before school started in August, district officials did not see their figures rebound.

The more health-and-safety-focused parents are likely to return to Fort Worth ISD, Jimerson said.

“But, oddly enough, you also have people on the other side of that debate who may be leaving if they feel like masks are being too pushed, and they don’t like that,” the TCU professor said. “I don’t think those people all leave for one reason, and that’s a really complicated thing to address.”

Gentrification another factor

Gentrification and changing demographics also have played a role in Fort Worth ISD’s enrollment drop.

Urban districts like Fort Worth ISD deal with white flight, the movement of white residents to more suburban areas. Jimerson says that is likely another issue contributing to the district’s falling student figures.

The number of white students in Fort Worth ISD has dropped by 25.6% since 2011, according to Texas Education Agency data. That is the biggest percentage decrease among the seven demographic groups the state tracks.

“On the opposite side, you have some gentrification happening and that happens in Fort Worth … where you have families moving back into urban areas, especially as you get these great mixed-use development areas,” Jimerson said.

The increase of people living in the urban area, though, does not immediately mean a boost in enrollment for Fort Worth ISD.

“Not everybody who gentrifies always wants their kids to go to the neighborhood schools because maybe they perceive a quality issue or maybe they still have some of that social, racial class unease as well,” Jimerson said.

Parents choosing other school options

In Texas, parents can choose to send their children to a traditional public school, charter, private school or even homeschool them. 

Most of the students leaving Fort Worth ISD are going to charter schools, according to Texas Education Agency transfer reports. Last year, more than 12,000 students transferred into a charter school. Overall, the district saw 14,573 students transfer out of it. 

To keep students, Fort Worth ISD offers a variety of specialized schools.

Parents also are choosing to send their children to another traditional public school district. Last school year, 1,721 Fort Worth ISD students transferred to another independent school district in Tarrant County.

Fort Worth ISD is the largest district in Fort Worth and Tarrant County, but it is not the sole school system in the city. More than a dozen traditional public school districts and another dozen charter networks are in Fort Worth. 

Six nearby districts are considered fast-growth districts, according to TEA. These are districts that have seen their enrollments grow at least 3% over a three-year time period. The fast-growth districts — Crowley, Azle, Lake Worth, Northwest, Eagle Mountain-Saginaw and Aledo ISDs — are in parts of Fort Worth that have seen growth.

Suburban areas, such as Alliance in north Fort Worth, have seen significant growth, especially among people 25 to 44, said Walker, the leader of TCU’s Center for Urban Studies.

“You build a lot more suburbs, and you’re going to have those young families moving in,” Walker said. 

Parts of inner Fort Worth, which overlap with Fort Worth ISD’s boundaries, haven’t seen as big of increases in child bearing-aged residents as the suburban parts of the city, Walker said. The Fairmount-South Side Historic District and neighborhoods around TCU saw growth in this age group, but not as much as other parts of Fort Worth.

“Just browsing around these neighborhoods, the parts of Fort Worth we’re seeing the great growth, those do not look to be Fort Worth ISD areas,” Walker said. 

Fort Worth ISD can address its declining enrollment, but the solution is paradoxical, Jimerson, the education professor, said. The district has to find a way to offer personalized education for all students and make it consistent across schools, she said. 

Doing that could mean recruiting social workers and counselors who can help students and their families and individual campuses offering services that go beyond what is typically thought of as beyond a school’s responsibility. 

To bring students back, Fort Worth ISD said it is reengaging with parents through social media and monitoring trends as well as modernizing campuses and offering remote learning.

Jimerson pointed out what works in Keller ISD or Crowley ISD may not be a viable solution in Fort Worth ISD. To increase enrollment — or even to stabilize it — will require district officials to do serious homework, she said.

“Really, for a district like Fort Worth or any district experience this, until they really dig into data and chase down the people who are leaving and really try to find out why they’re leaving, it’s very, very difficult to address all of these problems systematically because they don’t always have the same roots,” Jimerson said.

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Jacob Sanchez

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. His work has appeared in the Temple Daily Telegram, The Texas Tribune and the Texas Observer. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University.

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