This is a question that HISD is asking itself as the Board of Trustees considers the $1.9 billion bond proposal, much of which is to be spent on high schools. A number of HISD high schools have had large drops in enrollment, but many of these schools also have badly outdated facilities and would be in line for rebuilding. The question is, what should their capacity be?
For example, Yates – which had about 960 students last fall – would be built to hold 1,200 to 1,800. Two decades ago, the school’s enrollment topped 2,000.
“We’re trying to right-size,” [HISD Superintendent Terry] Grier said. “That’s up for debate and discussion.”
Part of Yates’ low enrollment is a result of students who live in the neighborhood choosing to attend other HISD schools. Two years ago, 840 students made this choice, according to the latest district data.
Overall enrollment in the Houston Independent School District has held pretty steady in recent years, with some campuses crowded and others much emptier.
In the Heights, Reagan High School Principal Connie Berger said a major renovation to the campus five years ago has improved morale among students and teachers. Enrollment was on the rise before the construction and continues to grow, to 2,040 last year.
The story is different two miles north at Booker T. Washington High School, where enrollment has dropped almost in half since the early 1990s to about 820 students last year.
“People like new things, and they like nice things,” said Vincent Gray, athletic coordinator and head basketball coach at Washington. “If you’re a parent and you ride to Booker T., we have a lot of good things going on. But from the outside you’d think, you can take your kid right down the road to Reagan. It’s real nice. It’s real pretty.”
Trustee Anna Eastman expressed some skepticism with the idea of “if you build it they will come”, and I agree that simply updating the physical plant is no guarantee. On the other hand, a crumbling building is surely a turnoff, especially when there are better options nearby. The real question is whether HISD thinks it can raise enrollment overall at its high schools, or if it thinks that this round of construction is more likely to simply shuffle the population around. That will be a big driver of these sizing decisions. In the case of schools such as HSPVA, one would expect that they’ll fill up at any reasonable size. But how much of any projected enrollment growth will be the result of existing students changing where they go, and how much will be new students entering the system? That’s the $1.9 billion question.