With low enrollment at some schools, overcrowding at others, a bleak financial outlook, which includes ever-increasing budget constraints and shrinking funds from the state, the Fort Bend Independent School District says it’s considering closing several of its campuses, including two predominately minority schools. At risk is: Willowridge High School, which has the capacity for 2,044 students. Its actual enrollment is 1,459; Christa McAuliffe Middle School, which has a capacity of 1,227. Its actual enrollment is 550; and Colony Bend Elementary School, which has a capacity of 753. It’s actual enrollment is 406.
The under-capacity problem is a big one in Fort Bend. All three of the district’s seventh- and eighth-grade middle schools are under capacity. Missouri City and Quail Valley middle schools are operating below 74 percent, while McAuliffe is operating at less than 45 percent.
Both options that Chief Auxiliary Service Officer Ben Copeland presented to the Fort Bend ISD school board have McAuliffe being closed. Option A would send McAuliffe student to Missouri City MS, while the second option would send them to Quail Valley MS.
Copeland said the former middle school would be turned into either a technology education center or additional administration offices.
District officials said merging the schools could bring them to capacity. Missouri City Middle School, with a capacity of 1,130 students, would have 1,321 students enrolled in 2011 under option one. Under option two, Quail Valley’s attendance would expand to 1,026. Its capacity is 1,292.
Copeland also told the board that option two would limit the number of seats available to students in the Quail Valley Gifted and Talented (GT) program, which opened in 2007. Board president Sonal Bhuchar favored the first option because it made no changes to the number of GT students.
McAuliffe originally opened as McAuliffe Junior High in the fall of 1986. The school is named after Sharon Christa Corrigan McAuliffe, one of the crew members killed in the Space Shuttle Challenger blast.
The eastern portion of the district has under-capacity issues at several high schools as well.
Both Marshall and Willowridge High School are currently operating below capacity. Willowridge, which has a capacity of 2,044, is operating at 71.4 percent capacity with only 1,459 students enrolled. Marshall, which has a capacity of 2,056 students, is operating at an even lower 66.1 percent capacity with 1,358 students.
Fort Bend ISD said it’s the enrollment numbers, not a school’s location, that ultimately will dictate its move. At the moment, some numbers simply aren’t adding up.
One of those, Willowridge High School, was once a staple in the Fort Bend School District. The school sits in the eastern portion of Fort Bend ISD. Its population is among the poorest in the district. Even though test scores there have been improving, there is discussion about closing its doors. Ironically, Willowridge’s Principal, Dr. Joe Coleman, was recently announced as one of nine finalists for a statewide principal’s award.
Fort Bend ISD says over the next four years demographers say the student population size will plummet at many of the schools already under capacity.
Former student Kimberly Wright says the school has been on a downward spiral for years, but closure is not the answer.
“I think some re-organization needs to take place,” Wright said. “There has always been an invisible line, segregating Willowridge from the rest of the district. That’s the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about.”
District officials say closing Willowridge is one of several options the FBISD Board of Trustees is considering.
“Fort Bend ISD is currently reviewing several options that may better balance student enrollment across the district,” said a statement released by the district. “We have some campuses that are over capacity and some that are under capacity. Given the budget constraints that our district is facing, we are researching all options to help reduce costs by better utilizing our existing facilities.”
Fort Bend ISD is reviewing several options that may better balance student enrollment, though some students say moving them further from home would be detrimental.
However, a map shows the four other Fort Bend ISD schools, which are at more than 110 percent of capacity. Board President Sonal Bhuchar said that reductions in state funding could cut up to $26 million from Fort Bend ISD’s budget.
“Rezoning is a very, very difficult situation,” Bhuchar said. “We are always stuck between a rock and hard place, and this hard place seems to be getting harder each year.”
Fort Bend ISD officials won’t say where the children would attend if Willowridge is closed.
“Right now my kids walk to school,” said Willowridge parent Dauphine Jones. “The closest high school is like 15 minutes away, so it’d be a transportation problem for a lot of people.”
Parents have already begun organizing to stop the closures. The parent-teacher organization at Colony Bend already has launched an online petition to prevent the school from shutting its doors.
District officials stressed that no decision will be made until after the first of the year. Residents can submit comments to the district concerning zoning in Fort Bend County at the district website, http://www.fortbendisd.com.
Schools under consideration for closure
Willowridge High School, Enrollment 1,459.
Christa McAuliffe Middle School, Enrollment: 550.
Colony Bend Elementary School, Enrollment 406.
ReShonda Tate Billingsley