Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
North East Independent School District trustees voted unanimously Monday night to close West Avenue Elementary in its current form, transfer its students to nearby Dellview and Olmos elementaries, and use the campus to open a new pre-kindergarten academy for more than 400 4-year-olds.
District officials plan to close the elementary school at end of the school year and open the North East ISD Pre-Kindergarten Academy at West Avenue in 2019-20.
NEISD Superintendent Brian Gottardy initially floated the idea in a letter to parents less than two weeks ago. He wrote to West Avenue families that declining enrollment had created a financial problem and later told community members that the school was only using 60 percent of its available classroom space.
By transferring the remaining West Avenue students elsewhere, NEISD can free up space to serve a growing demand for full-day pre-kindergarten education.
At the school board meeting Monday night, one West Avenue parent and alumna of the school implored NEISD to keep it open as it is.
"Whether you see it or not, West Avenue is a huge part of this community," Christina Vela-Flores said. "West Avenue is the meaning of stability. ... I feel that if you take West Avenue out of this community ... much of the community is going to lose that."
Before the vote to approve the closure and transformation of the campus to become the North East ISD Pre-Kindergarten Academy at West Avenue, Gottardy told Vela-Flores and other members of the public he and the board also want stability for all NEISD students.
At a community meeting last week, parents expressed various levels of confusion and frustration, asking Gottardy why he had not informed them sooner about the plan, and why their students could not remain at West Avenue.
The superintendent emphasized that West Avenue is one of the district's smallest schools and uses only about 60 percent of the facility's classroom space.
"From a financial standpoint, that's not a very good model for NEISD to have utilized," Gottardy said.
By transferring students to nearby schools, Dellview, located 1.5 miles away, will go from an enrollment of 331 students to 497, and Olmos, located less than a mile away, will grow from 514 students to 651. Each school has the capacity to take the additional students, Gottardy said.
Middle school feeder patterns also would be altered. Students at West Avenue were originally assigned to Nimitz Middle School. Those attending Dellview would go to Jackson Middle School. However, the district is also proposing a grandfather clause in which students currently at Nimitz would remain there and fifth-graders at West Avenue would continue onto Nimitz if they chose, regardless of whether they live on the Dellview or Olmos side.
All students would continue to be assigned to LEE High School after middle school.
In his Sept. 26 letter, Gottardy said the decline in West Avenue's enrollment no longer made operation in its current form viable. The decline comes from competition from charters and private schools, an aging population, and a lack of any new housing developments in the area, he said.
"Today, West Avenue Elementary is one of the smallest schools in North East ISD after an enrollment decline of 18 percent since 2013," Gottardy wrote. "The loss of students throughout NEISD has a direct and negative impact on our ability to properly fund our classrooms."
NEISD has been considering such a proposal since this summer, Gottardy told the Rivard Report. District officials met with staff and PTA council members in the last week of September before alerting parents to the potential change.
When one parent asked at the community meeting what would happen to West Avenue's principal, Gottardy pledged that the principal and all other school staff would have jobs in NEISD next academic year.
By reopening the school to serve exclusively pre-kindergarten students, Gottardy said the district would satisfy the demand for full-day pre-K programming and potentially increase enrollment.
The pre-kindergarten school is projected to serve 200 tuition-free eligible students from nearby elementaries, an additional 100 tuition-free eligible students from elsewhere in the district, and 100 non-eligible students who will pay tuition on a sliding scale.
Gottardy indicated there may be future pre-kindergarten-only campuses in the district that could be adapted from current low-enrollment campuses. While he had no concrete details, he said he wanted to see how the proposal at West Avenue worked first.
West Avenue is one of two NEISD campuses rated "improvement required" under the State's accountability system. It has one of the highest concentrations of low-income students in the district and has previously failed state standards in 2015 and 2013.
NEISD spokeswoman Aubrey Chancellor told the Rivard Report that the school's failing rating didn't motivate the district's decision to propose closing the school.
Olmos and Dellview elementaries have demographics similar to West Avenue. Each scored higher in the State's accountability ratings and has a student body that is primarily made up of low-income students.
This article was originally published on Oct. 2, 2018.