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Austin area schools look forward to nearby opponents, being more competitive after UIL realignment

A red football sled is on an athletic field with greenish brown grass at Travis Early College High School.
Patricia Lim
KUT News
Travis Early College High School is dropping from 5A to 4A because of declining student enrollment.

Every two years, the University Interscholastic League, or UIL, reevaluates which schools should be competing against each other in academics, arts and sports. That process is known as reclassification and realignment. This month, the UIL announced changes for football, volleyball and basketball.

The realignment is having a significant impact on some Austin area schools. Population growth in the city and neighboring communities has led to some major swings in high school enrollment numbers. While suburban school districts try to keep up with the demands of rising student populations, Austin ISD continues to grapple with declining enrollment.

Eastside, LBJ, Northeast and Travis Early College High Schools have struggled in recent years to meet the UIL threshold to qualify for the 5A classification. This has meant students at those campuses have had to compete against schools with many more students. But the UIL realignment will help address that issue.

“With the growth of Texas and the shifting populations of Texas, schools grow in size, they shrink in size, new schools come online and that’s the need to do it every two years,” UIL Deputy Executive Director Jamey Harrison said.

How does realignment work?

The UIL first determines which conference schools should be in based on the number of students enrolled at each campus. The UIL announced the conference enrollment cutoff numbers for the 2024-2025 and 2025-2026 school years last December. Schools in the 1A conference, for example, must have fewer than 105 students, while those in 6A must have at least 2,275.

Harrison said it’s important for schools of similar sizes to compete against one another because typically — the more students a campus has, the more competitive it is.

“Enrollment disparities have an impact on competitive equity across all of our competitions — both athletics and non-athletics,” he said. “But football in particular is a numbers game, so competitive equity is very much impacted by student enrollment.”

Once the enrollment cutoffs are set, UIL staff then determine which schools will compete against each other. This month, plans were released for volleyball, basketball and football — which is the only sport where each conference is also divided into two divisions.

Harrison said they try to group schools based on where they’re located, but it doesn’t always work out.

“We will receive emails from the general public talking about our complete lack of intelligence and ability to read a map,” he said.

But Harrison said they also hear from districts that are happy with the changes as well.

More games close by is a win for Hutto

One Central Texas school district welcoming the changes the UIL has proposed is Hutto ISD. The district is not facing shrinking enrollment like Austin ISD and will remain in the 6A conference for the next two years. Hutto ISD has been dealing with a challenge though: competing against schools that are a bit more than a stone's throw away.

Hutto ISD is currently in District 12-6A. Hutto High School competes against schools in cities as far away as Temple, Waco and Copperas Cove.

Now it's joining a new district with schools that are closer to home.

“Now that we’re in a new alignment, we’re really playing our neighboring district primarily, which would be Round Rock ISD. That obviously cuts down on the significant drive times,” said Henry Gideon, the assistant superintendent of operations for Hutto ISD.

Reducing the amount of time students are traveling for sports and other activities has a number of benefits, Gideon said. For one thing, students won’t have to leave school as early and miss class to make it to games that are more than 50 miles away.

“When you think about a football team that’s fixing to go out of town, and all the trainers and all the equipment. And then you think about the pep bands and the cheerleaders and the drill teams that have to travel — we’re putting several hundred students and equipment on the road to showcase their talents,” he said.

The changes also improve safety, Gideon said, especially in the face of extreme temperatures. Students won't spend as much time languishing in traffic in the kind of stifling heat the region dealt with last summer.

“These buses don’t do well in that heat when you have air-conditioning challenges on school buses and you’ve got children that are on those buses for two hours,” he said. “That’s an improvement for our kids.”

Gideon said the shorter travel times will also likely translate into savings for Hutto ISD. The district will be able to save money on gas and the buses won't be subject to as much wear and tear.

He said the transportation department is going to calculate the new costs, and the district's budget will be modified accordingly. Any cost savings are positive for Texas public schools, Gideon said, as many districts have been figuring out how to stretch a dollar because state funding has not kept up with inflation.

“I’m not trying to make a political comment here, but our Legislature has not stepped up to the plate yet to figure out how to balance what we need to operate schools,” he said. “We are all in deficits right now.”

Gideon said when districts have to fight for dollars, sometimes families end up having to foot the bill. He said he saw that firsthand when he was working for Boerne ISD, and at the time, the district couldn’t afford to send the band to perform at away games.

“The parents stepped up and fundraised to be able to pay for the band to be able to go to the football game. It’s not just a football game, it’s a whole student body experience,” he said.

Austin ISD sees five schools drop down

Austin ISD is another Central Texas district that was affected by the UIL reclassification and realignment process. Declining enrollment led a handful of high schools to drop down from one conference to another. Anderson High dropped from 6A to 5A. Four high schools dropped from 5A to 4A. They are Eastside Early College High School, LBJ Early College High School, Northeast Early College High School and Travis Early College High School.

Joe Frank Martinez is the athletic coordinator and head football coach at Travis High. He said the changes are exciting and significant because they’re competing against new teams.

“We feel that we can be competitive not only in football but all of our other sports and we’re looking forward to starting new traditions and rivalries with teams that we’re not usually used to playing,” he said.

Photos of Travis High alumni who played on the football team line a gray wall in a workout room on campus.
Patricia Lim
KUT News
Photos of Travis High alumni who played on the football team line a gray wall in a workout room on campus.

Martinez said they were still able to schedule a game with longtime rival McCallum High though. That’s set for the second week of the season. He said the team will also strive to be competitive with favorites in their new district like LBJ High.

“The expectation is for all of our teams — boys and girls — to challenge for a playoff spot and then the goal is to try to finish in the top two in our district,” he said. “We’re up for the challenge.”

Martinez added that he hopes if the teams are successful, it will attract more students to participate.

“Hopefully with some success in all of our sports, we can have some more kids want to come join athletics and want to play our sports,” he said.

Research has found that participating in sports and other extracurricular activities leads to better student outcomes, in part because kids are more likely to have better attendance. In Texas, better attendance rates increase the amount of state funding districts receive.

“A lot of the reason they come [to school] is to participate in not only sports but other UIL extracurricular activities,” he said. “If we can get those kids involved and make them a better person and make them a better athlete, that just helps us do our part to make the world a better place.”

The UIL will finalize the realignment for football, volleyball and basketball on Feb. 21, once schools have had an opportunity to appeal their assignments if they’d like. The UIL plans to announce alignments for other activities in the spring.

KUT's Jimmy Maas and Sangita Menon contributed to this story.

Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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