Charter schools see big enrollment gains in Central Texas

Charter schools continue their rapid expansion in Central Texas, and likely will enroll 30,000 students in dozens of campuses this school year.

Austin Achieve this week opened its second campus in Northeast Austin, which will allow the school to serve 1,500 additional students within a few years. Valor Public Schools will make its debut in South Austin next week, expecting to enroll 450-500 students its first year. And IDEA Public Schools, with three campuses in Austin, will open two new campuses next week — in Pflugerville and Kyle adding 1,400 more students to its attendance rolls.

While enrollment numbers won’t be firm until later this year, charter school attendance has grown by an average of 25 percent annually in the Austin area. The growth slowed in the past three years, but not for a lack of interest. More than 1,750 students are on the waiting list at the 1,675-student Meridian School in Round Rock, for example, and despite a recent facility expansion, the school is at capacity in nearly all grades.

READ: Charter schools gain ground in Austin

In Texas, charters — privately managed public schools — educate about 5 percent of all public school students. In Travis County, 12 percent of all public school students are enrolled in charters.

The surge in charter enrollment comes as the 81,650-student Austin district continues a slow decline of students, this year expecting a net loss of 1,400, its biggest decline yet. Despite a multifaceted campaign to recruit and retain students, 5,034 students (not including high school seniors) who were enrolled in district schools in 2016-17 left the district before the start of the last school year, a quarter of whom left for charter schools.

Critics have long warned that charter schools adversely affect traditional public schools, siphoning not only students, but state funding. But charter proponents say the competition is healthy, gives parents alternatives to campuses with lackluster performance and can lead to better academic performance in all schools.

Charter schools typically don’t offer the same sports or extracurricular activities available at many traditional public high schools, but they often tailor curriculum — such as classical learning, college prep or health sciences — to meet community interests and to draw in families. Some charter schools also focus intensely on preparing for college and continue to support students after graduation.

“The college commitment that we make with our students and families is what keeps them here from middle school to high school,” said Stephanie Burns, principal of KIPP Austin Brave High School, which expanded to 550 students with the addition of the 11th grade. “There is a person who stays with them and their families who checks up with them through college graduation.”

RELATED: State offers millions to boost Austin schools. But there’s a catch

Much of the recent charter expansion in Central Texas has occurred since IDEA Public Schools opened in Austin in August 2012, first under an in-district charter partnership with the Austin school district. The deal was brokered in 2011 and fizzled a year later after new school board members terminated the agreement. IDEA set off on its own, and a $16 million boost from the Austin-based KLE Foundation in 2016 will allow IDEA by 2022 to double its previous expansion plans, which includes 20,000 students and 26 schools on 13 campuses.

“It’s a culmination of different factors coming together, but the exponential growth has been because of IDEA’s growth in the Austin area,” said Elliott Nguyen, director of growth for the Texas Charter Schools Association.

But the overall growth also is bolstered by recent charter-friendly state laws that:

• Offer money and resources to traditional districts that work with state-approved outside partners, including charters, to improve schools under so-called Transformation Zones.

• Provide chronically failing schools another chance if districts turn over control of the campuses to charters or other approved organizations.

Gives charters money to build more schools.

“Charters are thrilled to have that additional money,” said Bruce Marchand, the state’s charter association’s interim vice president of operations. “That’s always been the biggest impediment for growth.”

Those opposed to such expansions have said the state is pushing districts to allow outside organizations to run their schools, opening the door to charter operators to gain a bigger foothold in areas where traditional public schools already face competition from charters.

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