Sharp enrollment losses in lower grades raise more concerns about El Paso population growth

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Dowell Elementary Principal Yeni Ontiveros high-fived Schuster Elementary students on April 18. The students were touring what will be their new school next year, part of El Paso Independent School District’s efforts to consolidate campuses in the wake of declining student enrollment. (Leonel Monroy/El Paso Independent School District)

The number of El Paso County children enrolling in kindergarten through second grade has dropped precipitously in the last seven years, further evidence that El Paso’s once-robust population growth has stalled.

El Paso County schools – including both traditional school districts and charter schools – had 34,603 students enrolled in kindergarten, first grade and second grade this year, according to data released in March by the Texas Education Agency. That’s down more than 5,000 from the 2011-12 enrollment in those grades, according to TEA records, a decline of 13%.

Related: El Paso population growth rate hits 8 decade low, census estimates show

Only one traditional school district in El Paso County – Canutillo Independent School District in the western part of the county – has seen an increase in K-2 population in the past seven years. Canutillo’s K-2 population grew by 88 students to 1,345 this year, or 7%.

Even Socorro ISD, long described as a growing district on the eastern edge of El Paso’s city limits, is experiencing a population decline among its youngest students, according to TEA data. Socorro enrolled 8,758 students in K-2 this year, down 317 from 2011-12, a 3.5% drop.

The new student enrollment data reinforces trends evident in the latest Census Bureau population estimates for El Paso County. Those estimates, released in April, showed that El Paso’s population growth rate had dropped to its lowest level in 80 years, increasing 5% between 2010 and 2018. Neighboring Doña Ana County in New Mexico grew even more slowly, only 3.3%.

El Paso’s population slowdown appears to be driven largely by people moving from the county to other communities in the United States. The Census Bureau reports that El Paso had a huge loss of people between 2010 and 2018 in what is called domestic migration, movement from one U.S. community to another. The census estimated that El Paso had a net loss of more than 50,000 people in domestic migration in those years.

What little population growth El Paso is seeing is being driven by births and immigration from other countries, according to the Census Bureau. School enrollment figures suggest that some of those children are moving from El Paso before enrolling in school. The Census Bureau estimates that El Paso County had about 14,000 births in 2012. This school year, when those children turned 6, first-grade enrollment in the county was less than 12,000.

The new Texas Education Agency student enrollment data suggests that much of the domestic migration loss in El Paso may be among young adults and their families. Slowing enrollment growth – or worse, declining enrollment – creates numerous risks.

  • Fewer students means fewer jobs for teachers, administrators and other education professionals. That would further limit the job prospects in El Paso for people with four-year college degrees, pushing more people to leave the area.
  • Between 2015 and 2017, voters in the Ysleta, El Paso and Socorro school districts approved more than $1.5 billion in bond issues to build new schools and renovate decaying campuses. Current enrollment trends could make it difficult to fill classrooms in some of these schools, even though taxpayers will continue paying off the bonds. That could create what are called “stranded assets” – investments that have their economic life curtailed because they no longer meet a viable need.
  • Fewer people in elementary school eventually will mean fewer people going on to higher education, creating enrollment challenges for El Paso Community College and the University of Texas at El Paso a decade from now.

Enrollment at all grade levels in El Paso County this year is 176,412, down 6,284 or 3.4% since 2011-12. Countywide school enrollment has declined every year this decade. Since 2011-12, elementary school enrollment (grades K-5) is down almost 9%; middle school enrollment (grades 6-8) and high school enrollment (grades 9-12) is down about 1%.

The sharpest declines are among the youngest students. Kindergarten enrollment dropped 14% in El Paso County between 2011-12 and this school year; first-grade enrollment is down 13% and second-grade enrollment is down 12%. Those declines at the earliest grade levels suggest that enrollment losses are likely to continue in coming years.

The El Paso and Ysleta independent school districts have struggled for years with declining enrollment, closing and consolidating schools as a result. El Paso ISD’s enrollment this year is 57,315, down 11% from 2011-12. Ysleta ISD’s enrollment of 41,064 this year is down more than 7% from seven years ago.

Socorro ISD has passed Ysleta ISD as the county’s second-largest school district, growing more than 7% in the last seven years to reach 46,814 students. But almost all that growth is in middle school and high school grades. Socorro’s elementary school population has grown only 1% in eight years and kindergarten and first-grade enrollment is down in that period. Socorro’s growth will slow or stop in the next decade if those trends continue.

Other than in Canutillo, which is becoming increasingly urbanized, elementary school enrollment has dropped sharply in rural school districts outside the El Paso city limits. In those five rural districts – Anthony, Clint, Fabens, San Elizario and Tornillo – elementary school enrollment plunged almost 16% between 2011-12 and this year.

El Paso County charter schools enrolled 5,810 students this year, up 57% over the 2011-12 school year. Charter schools are adding to the enrollment struggles of traditional public schools, but are not the primary cause.

Enrollment in El Paso County’s nine traditional public school districts dropped by almost 8,400 students between 2011-12 and 2018-19. Growth in charter schools accounted for 2,100 of those students. The bulk of the decline — 6,300 students – is due to fewer school-age children living in El Paso County, according to TEA data.

Robert Moore is a veteran El Paso journalist who has covered population trends for more than 30 years.

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