HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- As school starts this year, there will be tens of thousands of empty desks across the Houston area, with each one representing a student who unenrolled during the pandemic and who districts are still trying to convince to come back to school.
At the Houston Independent School District alone, nearly 15,000 students are missing, and the district says it is too soon to know if their efforts to re-enroll them are working.
"I think the proof is yet to come," said incoming HISD superintendent Millard House. "All we can do is work our behinds off to do our best to get it done, but it depends on who shows up on day one."
House said HISD should have around 210,000 students enrolled for the upcoming year, but as of this week, only about 196,000 students are enrolled in Houston public schools.
"It's been a daunting task," said House, who was named superintendent in June. "Public education right now, it is a crisis."
Although HISD, the largest district in the state, lost the largest number of students, it's not alone in the struggle to fill empty chairs.
Our 13 Investigates analysis of 55 Houston-area school districts found 33,742 students unenrolled from 34 districts in Harris, Fort Bend, Montgomery, Galveston, Brazoria, Liberty, Chambers, Brazos and Waller counties.
INTERACTIVE: How many students went missing from your school district? 13 Investigates reached out to 55 area school districts. The red indicates an enrollment loss and the blue indicates an enrollment increase. Districts in gray did not respond to our request for data. On mobile device? Click here for a full screen experience.
Educators fear if the thousands of missing students are not found, it could impact them long-term, including more students being held back or dropping out, and fewer at-risk students graduating, seeking higher education or being successful in the workforce.
"You're talking about a generation of kids that, quite frankly, could really miss out on opportunities," House said. "Over the course of X number of years, a kid without a bachelor's (degree) misses out on over a million dollars, so you think about what that means from a sustainability standpoint for a family, for a generation, so it's immeasurable."
Duncan Klussmann, a professor at the University of Houston College of Education, said districts typically hit peak enrollment in October, so it'll still be at least another month and a half before the state knows for sure how many unenrolled children face that risk.
"I do think the fear is that there are still going to be a certain number of kids, even with improved enrollment and improved communication around compulsory education, there's going to be kids that we've just lost from the system," said Klussmann, a former Spring Branch ISD public school superintendent.
Statewide, enrollment at the elementary and secondary school level was down about 5% during the 2020-21 school year, with nearly 135,000 fewer students than the previous year, according to a 13 Investigates analysis of the latest state enrollment data released in February.
The Texas Education Agency data shows middle and high schools saw a slight enrollment increase statewide, but overall enrollment across Texas is down 2.2% from nearly 5.5 million students during the 2019-20 school year to 5.37 million students in the 2020-21 year.
In Houston, House admits it's not just those early elementary school learners who disappeared from schools.
At Houston ISD, the district says this past year, 52% of the children who unenrolled were in elementary school, 30% were middle schoolers and 18% were high schoolers. Using HISD's drop in enrollment, it could be as many as 2,647 high schoolers that have not come back to school.
House said some high school students got jobs to support their families during the pandemic and convincing them to re-enroll in school isn't an easy task for the district's outreach team.
"Now we're contending with, we need to pull you away from being the sole provider of your household so you can be back in the educational setting," House said. "We have to do everything that we can to let them know that the long ball is much more effective than the short."
Across the Houston area, our investigation found students are missing from 70% of districts who provided us with their enrollment on the last day of the 2020-21 school year.
Sweeny ISD's enrollment is down 10.3% with 1,820 students enrolled on the last day of the 2020-21 school year. It had the greatest loss in our region when looking at percent of students who unenrolled.
Tarkington ISD had the second worst, with a 8.97% student loss and a spring enrollment of 1,704 students. Texas City ISD has the third greatest enrollment loss in the region, down 8.5% to 7,733 students.
"The pandemic did not help our numbers at all," a Texas City ISD spokesperson told 13 Investigates. "We are still enrolling students and it looks like we should be consistent with last year's numbers. We've done calls to get everyone enrolled and we also sent a mailer home highlighting our successes to students who previously were enrolled."
SEE ALSO: Fort Bend, Conroe, Cy-Fair ISDs to offer limited virtual learning option for some students
When looking at the state's 10 largest school districts, Austin ISD had the biggest enrollment dip, down 7.2% to 75,075 students. Houston ISD was down 7% students, followed by Fort Worth ISD, which was also down 7%. Dallas ISD, the state's second largest district, did not provide enrollment data.
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In Texas, state funding is tied to enrollment, but the TEA extended its "hold harmless" period, meaning a district's funding for the upcoming year won't be impacted even if they have fewer students. Instead, they'll receive funding based on their fall 2019, pre-pandemic enrollment.
With the financial incentive to find students gone, districts said they're still committed to finding the missing students.
"We don't stop trying," said Patricia Rodriguez is the School Assistant Superintendent for Primary Campuses at Aldine Independent School District.
'They are out there'
Educators say one reason enrollment is down on the elementary school level is because parents may have opted to keep their young children home instead of enrolling them in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten.
At Aldine ISD, one in three seats in their primary school is empty.
Rodriguez said the district typically has about 9,000 students at its primary, pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, level.
"If we were to open school today, we would still need to find and capture about 3,000 of our (primary) students," Rodriguez said.
SEE ALSO: Alief ISD adds 30 days to school year in pilot TEA 'summer slide' prevention program
Klussmann said getting those younger students back into schools will be important in helping minimize the long-term effects of the pandemic that could impact the overall trajectory of their lives.
"The timing of the (COVID-19) surge is very detrimental to the opening of school and so, it's going to take a complete redoubling of efforts," Klussmann said. "I would encourage every parent of a 3-year-old or 4-year-old, who has access to full day pre-K, to take advantage of that, because we know the long-term effects."
Rodriguez said it's challenging to get the younger students enrolled because for primary students, it's their first time interacting with the district, and some parents may not see the value in a child attending pre-kindergarten.
She said it's easier if the child has an older sibling who is in the district and they already have a relationship with the family, but for brand-new students, it is harder because that connection just isn't there.
"These are students who have never been enrolled in school, so we don't have information on our families. However, that doesn't stop us from knowing our neighborhoods and our communities and our complexes to go and to reach out to them," she said. "They are out there."
The first few years of school are especially important because that allows children to learn social and emotional skills, in addition to math and literacy.
"These are the foundational years. This is where we get the excitement for learning and being a lifetime learner," Rodriguez said.
But Klussman said bringing students back to pre-pandemic learning levels isn't just going to happen in one semester, or one school year.
"It's going to take three to five years to get kids caught up, and I think our school systems need to have plans that look at that long-term effect," he said.
In Houston, House said it's going to take a lot of work and trust to make sure students who fell behind get what they need to be successful in the future.
"If a kid's head is not in it, they're not going to learn a whole bunch, so there's a lot of support academically, but there's also a lot of support from a social and emotional standpoint to ensure that our kids and their families have the necessary supports to be successful," he said.
But the first step is finding the missing students and filling the empty desks.
"We let them know this is where we need you," House said. "We're back in session. We'll do whatever we can in terms of wraparound services to get you in a place where we can get back in our buildings and get in front of a teacher."
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