Austin ISD Leans in to Win Back Families, Boost Enrollment
Every student counts
It is 8am, and the Joslin Elementary library is waiting, patiently, for elusive families.
It will be ready to welcome them when they come. For the adults, there are fliers advertising Joslin as "The Coolest Elementary School in South Austin," information sheets about the area's middle and high schools, coffee, and donuts. For the kids, there are Joslin folders and pencils and snacks and a big colorful play rug. Parent support specialists sit with computers, ready to register whoever walks in the door.
Balloons in blue and gold – the colors, of course, of the Joslin Jaguars – are embossed with the Joslin and Austin ISD logos and tied neatly to the legs of the standard-issue plastic folding table. Some, inflated with air instead of helium, roll enticingly around on the playmat floor, next to neatly piled boxes of Legos. They will stay that way almost all morning, waiting for future Joslin Jaguars to disrupt the quiet.
Near the door, in front of the student artwork plastered to the window, Joey Sisson and Karen Torres are also waiting. Sisson wears many hats at Joslin: parent, registrar, PTA president. And those are just her official titles. In her free time, like this sunny Wednesday morning over summer break, she is still at Joslin, ready to tell parents about her school. She is full of friendly anecdotes about her son, about Joslin's Spooktacular and Moon Festival, about the student-designed school T-shirts ("Keep Joslin Weird!" is her favorite) framed every year on the library wall.
Torres, the "school improvement facilitator" and social media manager, does a little bit of everything. Over the past year, she's spent time reaching out to families, doing home visits, delivering iPads to students without devices to use at home, and trying to promote Joslin's new trilingual program (English, Spanish, and Mandarin), which launched with the help of a Texas Education Agency grant during the pandemic. This enrollment clinic is another effort to get the word out, to get kids on campus, and any news from families is good news.
Four families end up turning out. They are greeted and chitchatted and foldered and fliered and, yes, registered. They become the latest milestones toward achieving the Austin school district's main goal for the summer: Get lots of new students enrolled, fast.
This summer, all of AISD has come to terms with what its vulnerable campuses like Joslin have known for a while – enrollment is existential. And the district is betting big on people like Sisson, and schools like Joslin, being able to reclaim students from their competitors: charter schools and private schools and, for some, at-home schooling.
"We're seeing all these people leaving for charter and for private and things like that, because they want that small classroom, they want that small environment. But if they just would look a little closer, we have that here," Sisson said. Joslin's enrollment in 2020-21 was 244; the school's capacity is 374, putting the campus in the danger zone as the district periodically looks at, then turns away from, school closure plans.
"We're kind of like the best kept secret," Sisson lamented. "But we don't want to be secret!"
“One Drop at a Time”
The summer enrollment drive at Joslin, and efforts like it around the district, are part of an ambitious drive to recover what the district has lost. AISD's enrollment has declined for six of the past seven years, including a staggering 5,800-student drop last year (see chart); in March, the district's demographic report pegged then-current enrollment at 75,000 students. This fall, it hopes to close almost half of that gap and enroll 77,351 students.
To get there, it has set up dozens of enrollment clinics like the ones at Joslin, and staged three massive block walks with participation from U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett and Austin Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison, among other leaders, and enlisted volunteers who contacted more than 1,000 families. It's a slow and steady approach. Or, as Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde told a crowd of red-shirted volunteers before the district's latest block walk: "You know how you fill a pail of water? One drop at a time!"
The enrollment drive has engaged all aspects of district operations. Employee compensation depends on filling the pail: If the district hits the 77,351 number, most employees will receive a 2% raise. School buses in East Austin will now pick up students who live within 2 miles of some campuses, after families who were visited on the district's first block walk said the charter schools' offers of transportation from any location appealed to them. Even AISD's last-minute decision to offer virtual learning in the fall to elementary students (grades K-6), as COVID-19 once again surges throughout Texas, was made with an eye on enrollment. As of Aug. 11, more than 4,000 virtual-learning applicants for the fall had been accepted.*
These efforts are expensive. The state will not reimburse AISD for transporting students within 2 miles of their schools, and it will not count virtual-learning students toward the daily attendance numbers that determine state funding. This will force the district to dip into its reserves, which have been shrinking steadily, to expand bus coverage and set up virtual learning academies for the fall semester. Those reserves and AISD's federal COVID-19 relief funding will cover an estimated $40 million price tag for virtual learning. However, the district is betting big that these changes will pay for themselves by retaining current students and recruiting new students (and the $9,000 in state funds for each) to come back to campus in the spring.
So far, it appears the strategy is working; the district has more registered students now – 74,103 as of Aug. 5 – than it did at this point in 2020 or 2019. This includes more than 7,600 new-to-AISD students, including 5,500 pre-K and kindergarten students, the age groups that saw the biggest declines last year.
"Our philosophy is, let's work on the conditions of schools where we have low enrollment, rather than saying, 'There aren't enough kids here, what do we do?'" Elizalde told the Chronicle. "No, it's, 'How do we get more kids there?' Let's listen, because they're going somewhere, and right now, most of them are going to charters. So we need to ask ourselves, is there a way for us to find out what it is they're getting from the charter that we aren't giving them? And if we can provide it, then we'll provide it."
Matching the Competition
If the district's tactics – walking the neighborhoods, dropping fliers everywhere, resolutely branding each school's pride – sound familiar, it's because they mirror those of the competition. In addition to trying to match what charters are offering to parents and families, the enrollment drive itself is a response to the famously – some would say notoriously – intense outreach efforts of Austin's most successful charters.
Principal Jerald Wilson of Kealing Middle School says he's known families who believed that a charter school was their AISD home campus, because the district's own outreach to neighborhood families was no match for the full-bore charter recruitment effort. From cold calls to parents to home visits to billboards and lawn signs throughout East and South Austin, the charters repeat a single promise: Your kids will go to college. Alejandro Delgado, AISD's new director of enrollment, calls it a strategy of "constant communication."
Texas has tried to make itself a uniquely friendly state for charter schools to operate in, and those policies, combined with the outreach strategies, have led to rocketing growth for charter schools in Austin. Brian Whitley, the vice president of policy and advocacy for Texas Public Charter Schools Association, said Austin-area charters saw 9% growth in 2020-21, compared to a 7% shrinkage in AISD. They now serve at least 15,000 students within AISD, who are almost entirely Latinx and Black and largely low-income, although charters regularly face criticism for selective enrollment policies seen as cherry-picking promising students and excluding those with special needs (claims charters usually dispute).
It's a familiar dynamic for Delgado, who got his start in Austin education as an assistant principal at IDEA Allan, the ill-fated attempt by AISD 10 years ago, under former Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, to bring in an out-of-town charter to take over a vulnerable Eastside elementary (and, it was envisioned, the corresponding middle and high schools over time) with very little notice, let alone engagement with parents. Furious activists, and the new school board they promptly helped elect, put an end to that experiment, but IDEA remains in Austin as a tough competitor with AISD.
At IDEA, Delgado learned how to construct an "enrollment experience" for potential families, building a relationship with parents over the course of months and presenting them with a "vision" of their child's life at that school. "The charter schools are really good at articulating, coming down to your door or sitting in your living room, saying, 'I'm Mr. Delgado. Let me tell you about what this school has to offer and why and why your child is going to be successful, and where your child's going to be.' In AISD, we can do the same thing. We just need to communicate, and we need to deliver."
In 2017, Delgado ran for the AISD Board of Trustees seat that had been vacated by Paul Saldaña midterm, against Saldaña's appointed replacement Geronimo Rodriguez – now the board president – and Glen Shield. His part in the IDEA Allan saga made him a tough sell, with Saldaña telling voters he "really wasn't comfortable" with Delgado's charter background. But now, the background is an advantage.
And Delgado, a Bowie High grad and now a Joslin parent, is hopeful for the district. "[Elizalde] brought on a guy with an interesting résumé, but it's because she believes, actually, that ... it is not our destiny that we're going to have declining enrollment," Delgado said. "We can change this, but it's going to take a while."
“Have to Look Internally”
Some worry that an enrollment drive isn't enough to turn around AISD's downward trends. Among them is Saldaña, who as a "recovering" AISD trustee continues to be active in local politics and Latinx community advocacy. Although the block walks represent a positive change, he doesn't think they address what's really caused the disconnect between AISD and these communities. "Doing the door-knocking and putting up yard signs and stuff is great. But that's a strategy that charter schools have been using [since] 10 years ago," he said. "In my opinion, we're still catching up."
In addition to the district's ongoing failures to communicate well with families who have no particular loyalty to AISD schools, Saldaña pointed to the performance shortfalls that the charters exploit. Campuses lack before- and afterschool programming and resources for student support, their test scores and student achievement continue to lag, and district leaders repeat past mistakes that give families and communities reasons to not trust them. At vulnerable schools in neighborhoods with rising housing costs and high student turnover, these issues have magnified the challenge posed by charters, private schools, and "better" AISD campuses into an existential threat.
In 2019, a "School Changes" process promised a districtwide look at strategic investments in new programs and student support to revitalize strained campuses and make the district more equitable. It quickly became a drive to close schools to save money. Originally, AISD considered a dozen for closure, including Joslin; later, it whittled the number down to three East Austin elementaries – Metz, Sims, and Brooke – and the oldest public school in Texas, Pease Elementary. A backlash from the community, and from the district's own equity officer, Stephanie Hawley, played a pivotal role in the following year's school board election, bringing different voices and ideas to the dais.
Those voices include Noelita Lugo, a Pease parent and co-founder of Save Austin Schools, now one of the school board's two at-large trustees. She, like Saldaña, is wary of focusing too much on marketing rather than analyzing the "fundamentals" of school performance and investing in providing support to teachers. If not, she said, she "absolutely" fears that despite district leaders' commitments to the contrary, if enrollment doesn't rise enough, closures will return to the table. "We can't look at all the external reasons why things aren't working, why people opt out," Lugo said. "We have to look internally."
“An Upward Trajectory”
For Jamie Haynes, an 18-year AISD veteran who teaches special education classes at Martin Middle School, the outreach efforts are at least worth a shot. Haynes said his school frequently receives students who left their charters midyear after finding them a bad fit, and in some cases being subjected to disciplinary action. (Historically, about 8% of charter students have returned to AISD schools midyear.)
Haynes spends the beginning of each year focusing on social-emotional learning and building routines with his students. When students who have left charters in the middle of the year come in, "they've already been alienated." His classes are large to start with, sometimes with as many as 30 students and not enough desks for everyone, he says.
While he has little sympathy for the charters, which he thinks are beneficiaries of what he calls a "rigged competition," he has also been skeptical of AISD's response. "I don't think we should be adopting the same strategies as charter schools," Haynes said. "Instead, we should be focusing on building relationships with the community." He attended an early block walk, which he found to be slightly "rehearsed and inauthentic." But in an interview days before a block walk around the Martin area, he said he still planned to attend a second one – and take the opportunity to try and build community with the students he meets there.
"These are the students that could come to my school, to Martin or to Eastside [Memorial High School], and I can look them in the eye, and I can tell them what kind of teacher I am," Haynes said. "I can speak confidently about the kind of experience the students will have in my school, because I do see an upward trajectory."
That's what Joslin hopes to see as well. The school has been a candidate for closure, or consolidation with another South Austin campus, since the Carstarphen era, and parents and community members have learned to work and fight to keep it open. Three weeks after giving birth, Sisson went with her newborn son to a community meeting to discuss Joslin's fate. At the time, she thought, "I'm not missing this. Good luck trying to get us to be quiet about it." Now, she approaches new families on her street to ask where they plan to send their child to school.
Principal Chaolin Chang, in his second year at Joslin, says some families still hesitate about sending their children there next year, wondering if the school will remain open. He reassures them: Yes. He came from a dual-language Mandarin-English charter school in Houston; There and at Joslin, he brings the same attitude, greets students in their target language (hola or ni hao or hello here), and teaches students the same songs during morning assembly.
However, the families at his Houston school were relatively well off, Chang said. One parent had a connection at Minute Maid Park, the home of the Houston Astros, and his students got the chance to sing there. Here, the situation is different. Two-thirds of Joslin families are economically disadvantaged, and over 60% are Latinx. While the students learned the same songs, here they sang at locations around town, from Zilker Park to small businesses in the neighborhood, to raise awareness of the Mandarin program amid the challenges of the pandemic.
Now, standing among the balloons in the Joslin library, Chang has a new problem to consider. He has aggressive goals for enrollment: 300 this year, 350 – near full capacity – the next. His team has spent weeks calling parents, knocking on doors, getting the word out. He typically expects a deluge of late registrations, but the school has already registered 222 students for the next year. It's been going well.
Chang laughs when he says too many parents have signed up for kindergarten classes. He may have to hire a new teacher. "I didn't expect it to be that many," he said. "It's a good problem."
* Editor's note: This story has been updated since publication to clarify that all 4,000 students accepted for virtual learning this fall live within Austin ISD's boundaries.
AISD’s Decade of Declining Enrollment
The shrinking of Austin ISD's student population, even as the overall population within its boundaries has grown steadily, has been vexing district leaders and school communities for a long time. The rate of decline slowed from 2015-17, then accelerated again, then was briefly reversed in 2019 after some high-profile district-wide marketing moves, then went into free fall last year as COVID-19 closed schools and worried parents, particularly of new pre-K and kindergarten students, kept children home. The district's goal of 77,371 students by this fall is ambitious compared to last year but still reflects an accelerating long-term decline. In 2019-20, more than 16,000 students living within AISD's boundaries were enrolled in area charter schools.