Districts across the country are confronting both a present and future characterized by declining school enrollment and the impact such sharp drops could have on their budgets and buildings.
Federal data show enrollment in the country’s public schools dropped by more than 1 million students in the year following the pandemic, and many districts have yet to see a rebound, much less a return to pre-pandemic levels, and are considering closing some buildings.
But the national narrative isn’t the reality for every district. Some, particularly in rural and suburban areas, are experiencing the opposite, as they struggle to keep up with quickly increasing enrollments.
That’s the case in Tomball, Texas, a suburb about 35 miles north of Houston, where the district’s enrollment has more than doubled in about seven years, jumping from 9,000 students in 2017 to 23,000 this year, according to Superintendent Martha Salazar-Zamora. The 21-school district’s enrollment grew by 4 percent during the pandemic, when larger, urban districts generally reported the largest decreases—even in Texas, where enrollment grew overall.
With the increase has come its own set of challenges—two bond measures, several major construction projects to build and expand schools, a redistricting that shifted the boundaries that determine where students attend school, and investments in hiring more staff and expanding student-support services.
“With additional students come more general needs,” said Salazar-Zamora, who has been Tomball’s superintendent since 2017. “You need to have more seats for students, but you also need to have all of the additional materials and supports that students need, and you, as a leader, have to be ready to manage that.”
In an interview with EdWeek, Salazar-Zamora, one of four finalists for the National Superintendent of the Year, talked about her district’s growth, the challenges and silver linings that have come with its enrollment increase, and lessons learned along the way.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
To what do you attribute your district’s growth?
The infrastructure itself has grown around my community, so that has brought more families the ease of being able to live in a suburb of a larger urban community, and it’s easier for parents to work in the city and raise their children here without the hour-plus commute. Having more solid infrastructure around us in the community that makes that possible, I think that’s been part of it.
Also, our community has seen other industries—like oil and gas companies—relocate or locate to this area, which also makes Tomball very appealing.
So, I think it has some to do with what we’re doing in the schools but a lot to do with what’s happening in the broader community.
Did you see this growth coming?
We work very closely with demographers and we’ve had a long-standing partnership with them that dates back at least 15 years, if not longer. So, we’re always looking five to 10 years out and we had an idea of the growth that would be coming, so I wouldn’t say it came as any shock, but I do think it happened a little faster than we expected. So we weren’t totally shocked and were able to be prepared.
What kind of impact has the growth had on your district in recent years?
Along with the traditional and expected overcrowding, we’ve changed pretty quickly in the makeup of our student body, and we’re now a majority-minority school district with about 80 different languages spoken. That’s a lot of different languages in a community that has suddenly expanded and now has so many more opportunities for families to learn from other people who’ve come in from other parts of the world and have different customs and cultural experiences to offer.
Along with that, we’ve had to work hard to try and keep up with our facilities.
We passed a bond in 2017 for $275 million with a 75 percent passing rate, and we used that to build district campuses and a stadium. Then, in 2021, we passed the next one, just under $500 million to open a pre-K center and to build an elementary and junior high school, a high school, and add to an existing facility.
We also just went through an entire district zone reset [redistricting] to balance enrollments and fill those new buildings. That can be a very difficult and emotional situation, but we managed to get through that and end up in a place where families are pleased with where they may be going, which isn’t always the case.
What other challenges has the quickly growing enrollment brought to your district?
Let’s just start with staffing.
Not enough people are going into public education as educators in general, and staffing has been a real challenge, regardless. But, for us, it’s a little bit harder if you suddenly get to August and realize you have far more students than expected and need to hire however many more teachers.
It takes a lot of forward thinking and planning because we’re really careful about our student-teacher ratio and believe that’s a big part of our success.
Every year, we have a lot of honest conversations about where our projections are and what’s coming because we don’t want to get in that understaffed situation or not be able to find the best teachers because it’s late August. But if we’re off on the other end [and have too many teachers], that comes as an expense to the district.
Also, something that people don’t always consider is that if you’ve been a student in Tomball all these years, we know what you’ve learned and been exposed to, what your strengths and weaknesses are, and we know what we’re working with. But if you come to me and you’re brand new—either as a student or a staff member—you may be coming in from a place with different strengths or have missed content, and we have to do more remediation than anticipated.
We do an onboarding when the student arrives, which includes an evaluation of their academic strengths and weaknesses to see what we need to help them with.
That goes for teachers, too, because our teaching staff is exposed to professional development, or if they’re new, they haven’t had that opportunity for PD yet, so then we have to work with them to get to the level of the other staff. That takes time and effort, too. We’re intentional about making sure we know what we need to do to get them comfortable.
It’s all a lot, but if we don’t do the work at the beginning, something will be missed, then down the line you have to deal with it anyway, so it’s better to assess at the beginning.
Have there been bright spots?
We love embracing the families and youth that come in. I think that they learn from us, but we learn from them, too.
We love having families tell us things they were previously exposed to that they would like to see, or hear how things we have that they’ve never had before have worked. It’s a two-way street that, to me, is wonderful.
I think we’re a better district now. Not a lot of people would say that when you grow from 9,000 students to 23,000 students in seven years, and not a lot of people would say there were more highlights than not, but I think we’re a better district because of how we’ve managed the growth and embraced the challenges and lessons that come with that.