Imagine that you’re running a public educational system. Parents with school-age children are moving into your community in a steady, almost breakneck pace. Where do you put those children? How do you accommodate your school system’s new neighbors?
This is a “headache” I suspect most public-school educators and administrators would love to face every day.
Welcome to the world of Princeton Independent School District administrators, who are trying to manage a school system that is growing each day.
PISD opened Dorothy Lowe Elementary School this past August, expecting 400 students to be scurrying through the halls. The school welcomed 431 students. Lowe Principal Jeff Coburn just this past week welcomed seven new students into the building he manages.
So, here’s the question I posed to Coburn, with whom I visited while preparing a story posted earlier this year on the opening of the new school: Did you build in excess capacity on the campus, expecting a greater-than-projected enrollment at the school?
The answer? Yes, according to Coburn. “The ideal capacity here is 650 students,” Coburn said. He added that Lowe has added 25 students since the beginning of the school year. Coburn also predicted that Lowe will finish the 2019-2020 school year with close to 500 students. He said Lowe has five classrooms that are not being utilized, but the school staff is ready to expand into those empty classrooms when the time comes.
PISD Superintendent Phil Anthony – whom Coburn described as a “numbers guy” – agrees with Coburn’s projection. Indeed, Anthony projects that PISD will grow altogether by about 600 students before the end of the current academic year. Anthony noted that Prosper ISD west of McKinney is adding many more students annually. “We’re not Prosper,” he said, “but we’re growing at a steady rate.”
Anthony smiled when I mentioned the “numbers guy” compliment Coburn paid to him. “Hey, I taught math” before moving into school administration, he said.
Coburn became Lowe’s principal after serving as assistant principal at Princeton High School. His new assignment, Lowe Elementary, sits in the midst of a residential building boom near the western edge of Princeton. His office at the school has windows that look across Beauchamp Street, where developers are erecting more housing units daily.
Coburn said that the home builder developing the Arcadia Farms subdivision has “at least 20 homes under construction” at the same time. “They all are going to welcome families and those families likely will have children” who will attend PISD schools, he said.
Coburn noted that Texas public school policy requires the maximum student-teacher ratio should not exceed 22 to one for grades pre-k through third grade. “We try to maintain a 17 to one ratio” for pre-kindergarten to third grade classrooms at Lowe Elementary, according to Coburn.
Projecting student enrollment from year to year is a bit of a crap shoot, Coburn and Anthony said. Anthony said the district used a demographer years ago who kept falling short on projecting student enrollment. Coburn said the demographer was “too conservative” in developing his analysis. So, the district hired a new demographer, Templeton Demographics, who takes a more “aggressive” approach to making these projections, said Coburn.
Anthony said the district’s enrollment, which now includes about 5,400 students in all grades, is expected to add 6,737 students over the next 10 years.
And, yes, that all means that Princeton ISD, which has one high school, will need to build a second high school eventually, according to Anthony, who said PISD already has purchased 100 acres near the junction of FM 928 and FM 546 to accommodate the still-unplanned second high school.
What is PISD doing now to accommodate the growth at the high school? Anthony said PISD is going to “kick the can down the road” by building a new ninth- and 10th-grade campus just north of the existing high school; the current Princeton HS will become an 11th- and 12th-grade center. The new campus will open in time for the 2021-2022 school year, Anthony said.
Anthony, who has served as superintendent in Princeton for 19 years, said the district’s school enrollment has tripled during his time at the administrative helm. He also said the source of the growth has shifted from the area north of U.S. 380 to neighborhoods south of the thoroughfare.
Moreover, he said, the growth presents a new set of issues for what he called a “property poor” school district. He said PISD lacks “non-residential development in its tax base,” which he said means that “as we grow, that means we are going to get more kids.”
The school system is looking ahead, according to Anthony. It opened two new schools this year. It will open its next elementary school in 2022. PISD has money set aside for construction on the strength of a bond issue approved earlier this year.
“We cannot control the growth,” Anthony said, adding that the city “has some control,” through zoning, over the rate of growth.
As for the “headache” he suffers from having to cope with the constant demand of parents moving into Princeton ISD, Anthony said, “I would much rather face this problem than having to worry about the other, which would be a community that is losing population.”
John Kanelis, former editorial page editor for the Amarillo Globe-News and the Beaumont Enterprise, is also a former blogger for Panhandle PBS in Amarillo. He is now retired, but still writing. Kanelis can be contacted via Twitter @jkanelis, on Facebook, or his blog, www.highplainsblogger.com. Kanelis' blog for KETR, "Piece of Mind," presents his views, and does not necessarily reflect the opinion of KETR, its staff, or its members.
Kanelis lives in Princeton with his wife, Kathy.