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Enrollment Dip Worries Some Teachers, Parents at East Austin Public Schools

Kate McGee, KUT News
Luke Muszkiewicz with his daughters, Margot (left) and Hannah. Muszkiewicz and his wife transferred his daughters to Metz Elementary, a school that has seen declining enrollment over the last decade.

Enrollment at many East Austin schools has been declining in recent years. This week, demographers predict those neighborhoods will continue to see a decline in childrenfor the next five to ten years.

Some schools are projected to see enrollment drop to under 75 percent of capacity, including Metz elementary school in the Holly neighborhood just off East Cesar Chavez. Student enrollment there has declined by more than 100 students — or about 22 percent — in the past decade, which worries parents and teachers who are watching the neighborhood change around them. 

“Most of those families who can afford to live here in and around Metz, the demographers tell us are middle and high income families who tend to not have kids or don’t have kids young enough to attend elementary school," Metz Elementary parent Luke Muszkiewicz says.

Muszkiewicz is bucking the trend. Three years ago, he and his wife moved to the East Austin neighborhood and transferred their oldest daughter from Lee Elementary in North Central Austin to Metz. Muszskiewicz says when they requested the transfer, AISD asked them if they didn't mean the other way around, did they want to transfer their child out of an East Austin school?

They're also bucking the trend when it comes to ethnicity Muszkiewicz and his daughters are white. That makes them a minority at Metz, which was 93 percent Hispanic in the 2012-2013 school year.  

“Since we were in Austin [we thought] our kids might benefit from attending a school with a more bicultural experience where they can learn Spanish and be a minority among the other Hispanic students," Muszkiewicz says.

But they’re not the minority in the neighborhood. Since 2000, the number of white residents in East Austin has increased by 40 percent. Muszkiewicz, who is also the PTA president at Metz, says he's worried gentrification is pushing people out of the school.

“If we can’t fill those schools with students then, ultimately, I believe AISD is going to be forced to perhaps close some schools. To prevent that, we really need to continue outreach and better market the public neighborhood schools we do have," he says.

Austin city demographer Ryan Robinson says many of the new apartments and condos in East Austin have been built on vacant or virtually abandoned lots, known as indirect displacement. However, many Metz Elementary students live south of Town lake, in apartments on and around Riverside Drive, an area that’s also seeing a lot of redevelopment.

“[It's an area] where you’ve had workforce housing demolished and immediately on same site you’ve had much more expensive for sale condos built. So that’s an example of direct displacement," Robinson says.

Inside the school, teachers say the neighborhood has changed around them and the kids notice it.

“They’ll say ‘that house is so pretty, but nobody lives there from our school.’ right?'” says fourth grade teacher Caroline Sweet.

Sweet started teaching at Metz nine years ago. While the school has remained predominantly Hispanic, she says there are fewer recent immigrants.

“That’s one of those really significant changes we’ve seen. As immigrants are coming in, not able to find housing and looking somewhere else," Sweet says.

Since 2005, housing prices in East Austin have tripled. The shift means there are fewer students who speak Spanish as a first language. 

Sweet and another fourth grade teacher, Barbara Sassen, say fewer students at Metz also means less federal money for Title I students, and less money for positions like assistant principals or reading specialists. Sweet says they just hope to be teaching there next year.

“We’ve had four teachers in fourth grade, that’s gone down to three, it could very well go down to two, depending on where kids move," she says. 

Sassen, who has taught at Metz for 28 years, says this year is the first time she’s really noticed the community changing around the school. She worries about a developing disconnect between the school and a community without children in the neighborhood schools.

“They’re not going to care much about what’s happening here. And I don’t know if, when they do decide to have kids, are they going to send them to a school like this? A lot of times I would say no, they’re not going to. They know that a lot of kids attend here are lower socioeconomic and so they’re not going to want their kids in a school like that," Stassen says.

Sweet says the school expects to lose two more staff positions from other grade levels after this year. 

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