Principal Gilma Sanchez keeps a box of children’s clothing in her office at Barrington Elementary School in North Austin.
Living in one of the most overcrowded areas of the school district, nearly all of Barrington’s students are poor and Hispanic.
Sometimes a child shows up with shoes almost too tattered to wear; sometimes they speak little or no English. Sometimes, it’s both.
“I never know what’s going to come through the front door of the school,” Sanchez said.
Barrington and other schools in the Austin area reflect a demographic shift that is reshaping public education in Texas.
Between 2000 and 2010, Austin grew by 28,000 children under the age of 18. Of that increase, 92 percent were Hispanic. And, as Central Texas schools become more ethnically diverse, there has been a corresponding rise in the number of students who are economically disadvantaged.
Hispanic students are now the majority in the Austin, Del Valle, Manor and Hays school districts. More than 25 percent of students in the Austin, Del Valle and Manor school districts speak little to no English.
Schools are playing catch-up as they try to offer more bilingual education, outreach programs for non-English-speaking parents and an array of support services, including tutoring, basic computer skills classes and health clinics.
The demographic shift is also inspiring a generation of Hispanic educators who are leading Central Texas schools — a number of them coming from poor or working-class families. They see themselves reflected in the students they are helping.
Sanchez, for example, was born in Texas but spent most of her childhood in Mexico. She learned how to speak English while attending school in Baytown. Her senior year, she lived with her mother in Valle Hermoso, Tamaulipas, but crossed the border every morning to attend class in Brownsville.
“I still think about waking up at 4 in the morning to catch the bus to get to one place, then to cross the bridge,” she said. “I don’t even know how I did it. But knowing where I am now, it’s a blessing.
* Interactive: Student population change in Central Texas
“My focus here is that these kids know that there are opportunities out there for them, regardless of whatever we are facing in life.”
- Scholastic safety net
At Barrington, nearly 20 children gather outside the school doors in the predawn hours. They chat in Spanish and press their faces against the window, knocking and waving at Sanchez. She signals to them that it’s not quite time to come in.
While it’s still dark, parents drop the students off at school, in a hurry to get to work to not risk being fired for tardiness. A grandmother also waits outside, so the children won’t be left unsupervised.
At 7 a.m., Sanchez unlocks the doors and the children rush in for free breakfast. Five minutes later, the cafeteria is bustling with students carrying backpacks, waiting in a line that snakes from the serving counter, around the cafeteria and through the halls, nearly reaching the front of the school.
Even during the summer, the school opens its doors to offer a meal to the neighborhood children. The time away from school can be hard.
“A lot of kids leaving school for the summer, you could see it on their faces,” Sanchez said. “They didn’t want to leave.”
Studies show that only half of Central Texas preschoolers have the key skills needed as they enter kindergarten, including fine motor skills, such as holding a pencil.
As the number of poor students grows, school districts increasingly have to bear more costs with programs and support services to help them catch up. While additional state and federal funding for low-income students covers some of the cost, district officials say the amounts aren’t enough to keep up with the growing numbers.
“A lot of the costs are being pushed down to the local entities to take care of,” said Austin school district Trustee Ann Teich, who lives in the North Central Austin area of the district, where Barrington is located.
But others have stepped in to help.
Austin Voices for Education and Youth connects families to social services such as low-cost health insurance for children or emergency financial assistance for housing or utility bills. Those family resource centers, which the district helps fund, are housed within several schools in North and East Austin.
Schools that don’t have a family resource center offer other support. At Barrington, a part-time parent specialist has offered to teach parents basic computer skills, English and cooking.
Teich, a retired teacher, said that when the needs of the students aren’t met, it triggers a domino effect of lower academic achievement and assessment scores.
“To not offer wrap-around services means we have kids who will be absent a lot, who may be sick a lot, who may not have the motivation to do well in school,” Teich said. “If you’re hungry and you’re tired or have a situation that is chaotic, it’s very hard to focus and learn. We know their outside surroundings affect their academic performance. Education is a community effort, not just a school effort. If we want to have an educated workforce, then let’s invest in it.”
These are students who often start out behind their peers, and the future of the Texas economy depends on the ability of their families, their teachers and a strong social service network to prepare them for an increasingly skilled job market.
Hispanics living outside the border region earn 40 percent less than non-Hispanics, but with comparable education levels and English proficiency, the earning gap shrinks to a 6 percent difference, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.
- Bilingual teachers in demand
After years of grappling with a shortage of certified bilingual teachers, Central Texas school districts have boosted stipends to attract more of them.
The state’s education Region 13, which includes Austin-area school districts, spends nearly $200 more on average per student on bilingual and English as a Second Language programs than the state as a whole.
Of Manor’s 549 teachers, 45 percent teach and support students learning English. That district has increased spending on bilingual programs by 529 percent in the past decade, with a budget of more than $1.5 million for such programs this year. The district, which had only 1 percent English language learners in 1991-92, grew to more than 30 percent in 2011-12, the most recent year with that data available.
Like other districts, Manor beefed up stipends for bilingual teachers, this year increasing the amount from $1,500 to $2,500. Manor also tacked on a $400 relocating allowance for new bilingual teachers.
“The biggest challenge is hiring staff that is qualified to teach our students,” said Manor Superintendent Kevin Brackmeyer. “We’re constantly looking for teachers who have the certifications and the capacity.”
Del Valle, which has more than 2,800 students learning English, has boosted stipends for bilingual certified teachers to $3,000.
Districts with 20 or more English language learners in the same grade level must offer a bilingual education program. The students in bilingual education classrooms are taught in both languages, while those placed in English as a Second Language receive instruction in English only, with cues as to what words and phrases mean.
The past two years, Del Valle has come up short in bilingual certified teachers. The district’s officials have had to ask the state for authorization to teach some non-English speaking students in the English-only ESL classes.
In Austin, school leaders have had to rethink programs and services to meet the needs of the changing demographics, Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said, including transitioning from the district’s previous bilingual education program into a dual language program.
“You’re going to need to invest more in order to get the higher outcome,” Carstarphen said. But state funding cuts to education have left the Austin district short $30 million compared with 2011, making “it harder to support those student groups in a way they need to be in order to be successful.”
One way school leaders in Austin are hoping to make gains is by transitioning the district’s bilingual education program to a dual-language model that sharpens students’ skills in both English and Spanish. The dual-language approach aims to make students fluent and literate in their native language before taking on the second language.
There are now 65 schools in Austin that use the dual-language program. At some campuses, in the two-way dual-language program, students who speak English are integrated with those who speak Spanish and instruction is part-time in both languages.
- Growth difficult to chart
Many of the low-income Hispanic families move often, chasing cheaper rents. It is also common for multiple families to live in one home or apartment to decrease their cost of living.
That mobility poses a challenge for districts trying to predict student enrollment changes.
For years, some parts of town, such as North Central Austin, grew in population despite a lack of new housing or developments in that area. Districts like Austin fell behind in planning for the additional students in those pockets. Schools in those areas have become swollen and dependent on portable buildings to ease overcrowding.
While there is no way to fully know whether a home has two or three families living in it, Beth Wilson, who does facility planning for the Austin district, said the planning team has gotten better at making predictions. They study previous growth patterns and gather anecdotal information from principals, who often see the changes to neighborhoods first.
The district now is catching up with this ghost growth. In August, the district opened a new elementary just blocks away from Barrington. Guerrero Thompson Elementary School was built on one of the few available plots of land in the area large enough to accommodate a campus.
Next year, the district will open yet another elementary, this one down the road from Barrington and Guerrero Thompson.
- Learning two languages
The nearly 22,000 Austin district students still learning English also have prompted a major shift in the way the schools communicate with parents.
Breaking down the language barriers is critical for parents like Rufino Rodriguez, an East Austin resident and Mexican native who, after 15 years of living in the United States, sometimes still struggles to understand hand-outs and other information sent home with his two school-aged children.
But he’s bent on being as involved as possible, and an increase in bilingual materials helps. He’s a PTA member, and he joined the district’s advisory committee that provides outreach to Spanish speakers.
“It’s important for us,” Rodriguez said in Spanish. “If we can get more information, it’s better for us. It’s better for the children.”
The district has also bolstered outreach to families with its Educa Austin and Maestro en Casa programs.
Educa Austin, a Spanish-language radio show launched in 2012 that airs every Sunday, doles out information on district resources, English classes and college requirements. Within the first two weeks of its launch, radio listeners tuned in 250,000 times.
“We try to teach the parents about the resources and how to navigate the system,” said Alejandra Polcik, the district’s multicultural outreach coordinator and a former teacher at Eastside Memorial High School. “A lot of parents ignore the resources we have here, or perhaps they don’t know or they’re embarrassed to take advantage of the resources we have.”
Maestro en Casa is an English language learning and immigrant integration program. The basic English lessons are meant to help parents navigate common American situations and systems, including health care, finance and education.
Barrington Principal Sanchez said some of her parents are illiterate, so she doesn’t send out emails or letters home. She calls the parents instead. She considers working with them and the students her mission.
“Our students have great potential and a lot of strengths, and that’s what I’m focusing on,” Sanchez said. “I want all my students to succeed. I want all my students to continue their education, wherever they want to go.”