Leander ISD excels but is challenged by growth and state budgets

By RICH KEITH, Four Points News

In a public meeting held Monday night at Grandview Hills Elementary, Leander ISD Superintendent Bret Champion showed how the district’s continued growth is fueled by today’s demographics. He also explained some of the challenges in keeping high standards of education while dealing with current budget realities.

Champion said the district has had to learn to do more with less. Out of 4,219 staff, 2,270 are teachers, but this is an increase of only 64 since the previous high point in 2010 — before the budget cuts required a reduction in staff levels. Meanwhile, the district has added about 4,000 new students.

Leander ISD Superintendent Bret Champion showed how the district’s continued growth is fueled by today’s demographics.  Photo by Scott Coleman

Leander ISD Superintendent Bret Champion showed how the district’s continued growth is fueled by today’s demographics.
Photo by Scott Coleman

“Furthermore, we are spending less per student than in 2010,” Champion said. But, he added that these facts haven’t dampened his enthusiasm for meeting the district’s goals, particularly the ones “closing the gap” in achievement and opportunity for economically-disadvantaged students, or ‘Eco’ for short.

“I am the most proud of how we have improved the Eco vs Non-Eco Completion Rates,” Champion said. Citing a 21.9 percent Eco population district-wide, the district tracks demographics on students entering and graduating. In 2008, the gap was 18 percent when the Eco completion rate was only 70.2 percent, compared to Non-Eco at 88.8 percent. But today the gap is less than 2 percent, with Eco completing at 96.3 percent and Non-Eco completing at 97.9 percent.

LISD has an overall 84.4 percent STAAR passing rate, and the district continues to outpace both the state and the surrounding region districts in language arts and science. “Math is an improvement area for us,” Champion said, noting that while LISD’s test scores are better than results statewide, surrounding districts have shown slightly better results.

Collaboration is a keyword which Champion indicated is very important for today’s students. “Tomorrow’s employers require teamwork and collaborative problem-solving to a greater extent than ever before,” he said, pointing out that all of the district’s schools have implemented programs to increase this style of learning.

Champion said the level of parent volunteerism is what sets Leander ISD apart from other districts. “Parent volunteers are what make it possible for many of our accomplishments and this is particularly true of Four Points schools,” he said, referring to the support given the Vandegrift state champion marching band, the local high school and middle school robotics teams, athletic boosters, the elementary COOL week mentoring programs and many others.

Champion also pointed to the Hill Country Education Foundation as playing a key role in Four Points schools’ adoption of college-readiness programs such as Naviance, and mentioned HCEF’s effectiveness in making specific grants to teachers and programs which make a difference locally.

He said that the district believes supporting the fine arts is a primary goal to round out the students’ experience. “We are grateful for the district’s commitment to the fine arts,” said Peter Warshaw, LISD Director of Fine Arts.

Demographics drive structure.

As reported previously in Four Points News, the district’s demographer’s report says the district is adding about a thousand students each year. More than 2,500 new homes will be build in the next 10 years in the district. The difference, however, is the type of home being built.

“New families moving in are different from the early days of the district,” Champion said. “These new homes are not starter homes as we think of them; they carry price points more like $220,000.”

He also said that more upper elementary school, middle school and high school students are making LISD their home than ever before. “The era of all these starter home communities popping up everywhere seems to be over,” Champion said. “This affects how we plan for future schools to a great degree.”

Developers continue to build throughout the district. LISD is the 5th fastest-growing school district in the state behind Frisco, Katy, Lamar, and Grand Prairie. Citing a 44.4 percent population with a bachelor’s degree or higher and a $78,531 median income level from the demographer’s report, Champion said the door will stay open for the foreseeable future.

The district plans to build its 25th elementary in 2015 and its sixth high school in 2016 near Nameless Road and Bagdad Road in Leander. Pointing to the northwest sector as a growth area,  Champion, who is from the Central Texas community of Goldthwaite, said when he first came to the district twenty years ago there were only four elementary schools.

“Our biggest battle is staying ahead of the growth,” Champion said. As new schools are added, attendance zones have to change. This has caused concern for parents of affected students such as those in Steiner Ranch, as reported previously in Four Points News.

“We’re in the middle of looking at attendance zones, for example, and that’s always a challenge because people love their local schools and they don’t want to change.”