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Education

Austin ISD Lost Thousands Of Students During The Pandemic. It's Going Door To Door To Bring Them Back.

People in red shirts with clipboards on a sidewalk in a neighborhood.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
Austin ISD teacher Brandy DeFalco; Alejandro Delgado, AISD's executive director of student enrollment; and Donna Wise, academic dean for Mendez Middle school, go door-to-door in Dove Springs on Saturday, trying to register students for the next school year.

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Fifty Austin ISD staff members gather outside Mendez Middle School in Southeast Austin on Saturday, fueling up for the day with breakfast tacos and coffee.

The group is made up of central office staff, teachers and volunteers. The plan is to walk around Dove Springs and talk to residents with school-aged children about enrolling in district schools.

Alejandro Delgado, AISD's new director of enrollment, came up with the idea. He's taking a more dramatic approach than in years past.

“We’re actually knocking on doors,” he says. “To support our local elementary schools, we’re visiting high-density apartment complexes. For our Mendez students, we’re going to visit rising sixth- and seventh-graders who haven’t registered yet for the next school year.”

For the last five years, Austin ISD has seen its student enrollment drop. Parents have more options — whether it’s charter schools, private schools or in suburban districts where housing is more affordable. The problem got even worse during the pandemic: Around 5,000 students unenrolled.

And when the district loses students, it also loses state funding. Last week, Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said the district wouldn't be able to give teachers and staff a 2% raise until it sees what enrollment looks like for the fall.

The director of enrollment position was created to have someone solely dedicated to bringing more students to AISD. Delgado jumped right in.

“We shouldn’t take for granted our current kids,” he says Saturday as the volunteers get ready to disperse. “Our families, our students, have choices, and we want to be their district of choice.”

Where Are The Students Going?

AISD's enrollment has slowly declined for years. As housing has gotten more expensive, some families have moved beyond city limits. Charter schools also started popping up within AISD boundaries. These two factors have affected enrollment in the lower-income schools in the city’s Eastern Crescent.

When the pandemic started, some parents withdrew their children from AISD, leading to the steepest enrollment drop in years.

Some parents of children who would have been in pre-K or kindergarten opted to skip school altogether: Virtual learning was too difficult, and they felt unsafe sending their young kids back to the classroom. AISD saw the biggest decrease in enrollment among pre-K students last year.

When schools opened in October, Matt Wright sent his third-grader back to Maplewood Elementary, but realized it wouldn’t be convenient for his younger child to go to pre-K. The drop-off time was about 30 minutes after the drop-off time for his older son, he said. There were also no after-school options on campus.

The family decided to keep the preschooler in a daycare that offered full-time care.

Julia Ward determined virtual schooling didn't work for her Maplewood second-grader, who has a learning disability. So she, too, decided to unenroll him.

“It was clear he was just really struggling emotionally with trying to do this,” she says. “And it felt really pointless.”

Ward found a private school with small classes and lots of outdoor time, which she said seemed safer during the pandemic. She says it was a sacrifice financially and in terms of a commute, but it was better for her son.

Both families say they plan to re-enroll their kids in AISD this fall, but Delgado knows there are thousands of other families who may not. And this summer, he wants to reach as many of them as possible.

‘Not Leaving It To Chance’

When Delgado was hired in May, he said one of his goals was to improve “customer service.” Enrolling a child can be a parent's first experience with a school, he said, so the district needs to be thoughtful about the process.

“We're not leaving it to chance whether kids will show up,” he says. “That's one of the things that I'm working with our team, to say we can't just hope and pray that kids will show up, because actually our data proves otherwise. So we have to be really proactive and intentional.

“Prior to this year, [parents] pretty much had to wait until the first week or so of school or that first week of August to register. And we said a couple of weeks ago that's not acceptable anymore. Because guess who's answering the phone during the summer? Charters.”
Alejandro Delgado, AISD'S executive director of student enrollment

First, he’s trying to do small, logistical changes, like syncing up the drop-off times for pre-K and elementary students. The district also expanded bus service.

Delgado also wants to reach families who are faced with charter options, and as the former principal of a charter school, he knows how they recruit.

“Prior to this year, [parents] pretty much had to wait until the first week or so of school or that first week of August to register,” he says. “And we said a couple of weeks ago that's not acceptable anymore. Because guess who's answering the phone during the summer? Charters.”

One strategy he came up with was enrollment clinics. Every day in June, AISD staff were at schools across the district, available to help families navigate the enrollment process or answer questions about programs. They gave out free books for pre-K families and helped parents with technology, like forgotten passwords or how to access the district’s dashboard, where student assignments and grades are uploaded.

Delgado knew the district needed to be more proactive, though, which is what led to the door-to-door visits in Dove Springs.

Building Trust, One House At A Time

Delgado and Elizalde walk down the middle of the road in one neighborhood, heading to a house on their list. It’s the address of a student who attended Mendez last year, but hasn’t enrolled yet for this school year.

“What are my questions again?” Elizalde asks Delgado.

“First, are you registered for next year? How was your experience this past year?" he replies. "Second question is: What are you looking forward to next year? Next question is how can we help you?”

They see a family in a driveway, unloading groceries. Elizalde introduces herself, and they discover the teenager is enrolled at Akins High School. She'll be a freshman in the fall. They wave and continue down the street.

“We have addresses, but what we don’t have are addresses of kids who don’t go to AISD schools,” Delgado says. “There might be kids who go to charters here. So anytime we see bikes, we knock on the door, too — even if they’re not on the list.”

elizaldefam_MM_062621.jpg
Michael Minasi
Austin ISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde speaks with Araceoy Castro and Joel Agurre outside their home during AISD’s Operation Reconnect, an in-person push to get families to enroll in the district.

Delgado and Elizalde head to the front door of a house with toys in the yard.

The 19-year-old who answers the door says he graduated high school last year, but that his two nephews who live in the house are in elementary school. He says he's not sure what school they attend, so Delgado and Elizalde leave him with information about AISD, just in case.

Although he's new to the position, Delgado says he knows there's a complicated history between AISD and a lot of families. He says he knows a Saturday knocking on doors won’t convince all the families who left to come back. But it’s a good start.

“We’ve lost a lot of kids over the years, it’s an enrollment decline,” he says. “So it’s going to take time, I think, to build back the trust and the confidence in our system. We have principals and teachers working hard across the district, and so it’s going to take time to welcome back our families, but we’re going to get there."

Got a tip? Email Claire McInerny at claire@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireMcInerny.

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