Youth Population Growing Just as Fast as Kids Do

Reagan Brumley is concerned about the health of his musicians’ ears.

Brumley, the band director at Highland Park High School, said the Highlander Band has 140 members this year, and the Highlander Strings orchestra has 100 musicians. They rehearse in a room that was built in 1998, when the band’s membership was 45 and the orchestra’s was even smaller.

“As of last school year, it became impossible to rehearse the full marching band in one room,” Brumley said. “It can’t be done.”

He also said that the band hall is very “wet,” meaning that the time it takes for sound to stop reverberating there is longer than ideal.

“There’s some health concerns there because of the sheer decibel levels and the acoustics in the room,” Brumley said.

This is just one of the many problems facing Highland Park ISD’s trustees, who are trying to craft a master facilities plan to deal with a student population that has grown by 50 percent in 20 years. Each of the six campuses is already over capacity, and more growth is projected. Possible solutions include adding a fifth elementary school, creating a kindergarten-only campus, and moving Highlander Stadium away from the high school.

“The really scary thing,” trustee Jim Hitzelberger said at a recent meeting, “is that 60 percent of the households in the district don’t use our schools.”

Tim Turner, Highland Park ISD’s assistant superintendent for business services, was able to confirm that statistic. He said the Dallas Central Appraisal District routinely reports that there are a little more than 10,000 residences in the school district. And HPISD knows that it serves approximately 4,000 families.

Many of those families are football fans, and they are understandably worried about the Highland Park Scots’ impending promotion to the UIL’s largest classification for athletics. The cutoff line between classes 6A and 5A for the next realignment was 2,100; Highland Park turned in a figure of 2,106 students.

“I have people joking with me, ‘You need to move six kids out of the Park Cities,’ ” said University Park resident Molly Hurt, who sells houses for Briggs Freeman Sotheby’s International Realty.

HPISD officials are not the only local leaders who are discussing the Park Cities’ growing number of children. University Park city manager Bob Livingston prepared a report on the situation for the City Council last month.

“We have seen more demand on the city’s recreational facilities, including the parks and swimming pool,” Livingston wrote. “We have also experienced heavier traffic during drop-off and dismissal times.”

Livingston and his staff concluded that there is no single factor driving increased school enrollment.

Among the factors:

  • In University Park, which encompasses the bulk of the district, the average household size increased from 2.24 people in 1980 to 2.82 in 2010, according to census data. That’s a hike of 26 percent. In Dallas and Highland Park, the increases across the same timespan were only 2 and 4 percent, respectively.
  •  The relationship between bigger families and bigger houses is a “chicken or egg” question, but there’s no doubt that the houses are growing. The average size of the 96 homes built in University Park in 2003 was 5,406 square feet. There were 101 erected last year, and their average size was 6,830 square feet.
  • Despite the crowded conditions, HPISD schools routinely draw top ratings from the state. That makes the Park Cities a destination for people who want to live close to downtown but don’t want to pay for private schools.

Hurt is a product of HPISD schools, and her children are enrolled in them. But she has neighbors whose kids go to Episcopal School of Dallas.

“You do have plenty of people who will still pay and be in the Park Cities school system, even though they’re sending their kids to a private school,” Hurt said, “because they want the police department and the fire department, and they want the backup, just in case that private school doesn’t become a good fit.”
Hurt believes the recession led many such people to pull their kids out of private school, pushing HPISD enrollment.

Meanwhile, University Park and HPISD officials are wary of how a policy change at SMU may impact the situation. This fall, the university will require sophomores to live on campus, potentially freeing up hundreds of apartments for families with school-age kids.

Randy Hickman, whose Apartment Avenue locator service is recommended by SMU to its students, has his doubts.

“The demand on [apartments close to SMU] is so high, they’re going to be filled up with other students who are aggressively pursuing those vacancies,” he said.

It remains to be seen who’s right. But the drumbeat of escalating enrollment goes on, in the band hall and throughout the district.

This story appeared in the February edition of Park Cities People.

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