Field Trip: Enrollment, Part 2: Attracting Families, Maintaining Growth, and Dealing with Staffing Challenges

  

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In this detailed conversation with Dr. Maria Vasquez, the Superintendent of Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, Florida, we discuss the enrollment trends across the country. Dr. Vasquez delves into how these changing demographics affect schools, particularly aspects such as budgets, staffing, and infrastructure. 

She presents an informed view of this trend from her district’s perspective, highlighting an upward trend in enrollment, the challenges and benefits of this growth, and the strategies OCPS takes to attract families to the public school system. She also details the impact of Florida’s expanded voucher program and potential repercussions on public education funding. Finally, the conversation wraps with possible solutions to staffing challenges and their ongoing efforts for improvement.

Timeline

00:00 – Introduction to Enrollment Challenges 

01:18 – Welcome Dr. Maria Vasquez: Superintendent of Orange County Public Schools 

01:40 – The Impact of Enrollment Growth on Orange County Public Schools 

02:35 – Challenges and Opportunities of Rapid Enrollment Growth 

04:32 – Attracting Families to Public Schools 

07:00 – The Impact of Voucher Programs on Public Schools 

09:56 – Addressing Staffing Challenges and Redistricting in Growing Schools 

11:39 – Innovative Recruitment and Retention Strategies for Teachers 

13:15 – Closing Remarks and Future Plans 

13:34 – Podcast Closing and Acknowledgements 

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Full Transcript  

DR. MARIA VASQUEZ: Over the last several years, we have seen an increase in our enrollment. We’ve opened at least one new school over the last several years. But I’m not blind to the fact that, yes, there are more opportunities now for parents to pick an alternate to Orange County Public Schools. This is something that schools are going to start monitoring more, is how many leave and then come back. Why did they come back? What was it that they thought they were getting that they’re not? And then using that information to improve the quality of education that we we’re offering.

 

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RYAN ESTES: Today on Field Trip, we are talking about enrollment. It’s a huge topic, a crucial topic, and one that has enormous impact on school districts everywhere. Budgets, staffing, buildings, they are all affected by how many students are enrolled in a district. And many school districts are seeing enrollment decline. Others are expanding rapidly. And to talk more about this, I’m very excited to welcome Dr. Maria Vasquez. Dr. Vasquez is the superintendent of Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, Florida. It is the eighth largest district in the country with well over 200,000 students, and I’m honored to have her on the podcast today. Dr. Vasquez, welcome and thank you for being here! 

 

DR. VASQUEZ: Good morning. It’s a pleasure to join you this morning. 

 

RYAN ESTES: In some parts of the country, schools are experiencing rapid growth while in others, enrollment is dropping. I’m curious, what are you seeing in Orange County Public Schools?  

 

DR. VASQUEZ: Over the last several years, we have seen an increase in our enrollment. We’ve opened at least one new school over the last several years. This upcoming school year, we’re opening a new high school, a new middle school, and a new elementary school. And so in our area, the trend has been an increase in enrollment this year at the start of the school year. It’s the first time in several years that we have seen it level off, and we believe we may see a slight increase from last year, if not the same when we look at our projections in February.

 

RYAN ESTES: I’m curious what the impact is on your district, for what you’ve seen over the past couple of years, I know this can impact finances, class sizes, demand for staff, all of that. Is enrollment growth all upside? Are there unique challenges that arise when more and more students are entering the district?  

 

DR. VASQUEZ: Okay, so there is definitely some downside to the growth. When we’re looking at hiring staff, as you are well aware, there is a shortage of teachers across the country. When you’re opening a new school, there’s a lot of interest, teachers that do want to teach in these newer facilities. And so it’s not necessarily finding the new staff for the new school. It’s the drain that it puts on other schools within our district.

 

Additionally, there are growing pains for families that are building homes in these high growth areas that they may go through rezonings more than once, and that is difficult. We have been able to rectify that over the last several years with our planning and our design. But we still have families that their child might start off at one elementary school as a kindergartner, and due to huge growth they may not be in the same school when they’re a fourth grader, and definitely the middle school will have changed. 

 

So those are some of the drawbacks. But overall, we love to be able to see families moving into the area. We have an incredible school system that offers a lot of opportunities for our students with coursework and pathways that tap into their interest. All of that plays into why businesses are deciding to land in the central Florida area and schools are a big part of that. 

 

I asked Dr. Vasquez what steps Orange County Public Schools is taking to attract families to the public school system. Her number one answer was choice: offering options to meet families’ specific needs, magnet programs, dual enrollment programs, AP courses, certification programs. She says the community has been supportive through property taxes and a capital campaign, which allows the district to build modern facilities and offer fine arts programs at every school.  

 

DR. VASQUEZ: If we want our schools to be the hub of the community and we want our parents to support the schools as well as our business partners, we have to listen to what they want. And I think we don’t do that enough. We don’t hear from communities about what do they want to see in their schools. And I think that’s where we have excelled in listening to communities about what type of programming they want in their schools.

 

So, we have schools where the community is very big on sustainability, and so we have a sustainability program not only at the elementary school, but through the feeder pattern. And that taps into not only the parents’ interests, but local businesses and organizations that are supporting that. We do an incredible job of advertising, displaying, inviting families in so that they can see what opportunities are available not only at their local school, but through choice if they want to participate in programs that are available across other districts. 

 

And then in this day and age, safety, security, discipline, and violence are huge concerns for families, and helping them understand all that is in place to be able to have that sense of community, that sense of being safe, is also critical. Many times they will choose private schools or charter schools because there is a perception that they are safer, that they have less problems or that there is a specific program that they want that we’re not offering. 

 

And so listening and then doing an incredible job of showcasing what you are offering and how parents can get engaged I think is critical. 

 

RYAN ESTES: When you think about the voucher program in Florida, and I know other states are considering this, and I can see for a lot of people who work in public education, that might be a scary thing, how does that impact what you are doing? Is there any way in which you were doing something different now than you would be if that was not in place?  

 

DR. VASQUEZ: Florida has had a voucher program for several years, and this past year expanded it substantially. I will tell you that it is probably the first time that we believe we may feel an impact because it’s so expansive. It used to be with certain subgroups, it used to be with certain income levels, and now it’s pretty much anyone. And so as these dollars are being diverted for private schools and other choice options for our parents, even parents that are homeschooling their children are eligible for the dollars. So those are dollars are being taken away from public education.

 

And what it has reaffirmed is that if your parents don’t know what is available at your school if you’re not listening to what they want for their kids. We want our kids to learn a second language. We want our kids to be able to be exposed to more coding opportunities. We want our children to be able to experience more of the arts. So amping up the campaign of how schools, individual schools, market their programs, how they connect with their families, has gotten more attention this year from that local school level as some of our schools are seeing maybe smaller kindergarten classes. 

 

You’re starting to ask, what did I do to invite parents in for tours? What did I do for parents to see all the things that are available for them as new parents? So that is, I think, what is the greatest concern. But I’m not blind to the fact that, yes, there are more opportunities now for parents to pick an alternate to Orange County Public Schools. This is something that schools are going to start monitoring more: how many leave and then come back? And so a finding out, why did they leave? Doing some kind of exit interview with a parent who chooses to take their child to another school, but then when they come back, why did they come back? What was it that they thought they were getting that they’re not? And then using that information to improve the quality of education that we’re offering. 

 

RYAN ESTES: You mentioned you’ve opened a number of new schools over the past year or so, and you touched on some of the staffing challenges as well that occupy the K-12 space at the moment. As you move into the future, as you continue to open new schools to deal with rising population or things like that, how are you dealing with the challenges that come from redistricting, from trying to hire new staff? Is there anything that you’re doing that you’ve tried that really is working, or, “Oh my goodness, we tried this and that didn’t work, we’ll try something different”? 

 

DR. VASQUEZ: We have definitely fine-tuned our rezoning process. And again, we’ve been opening new schools for a long time, I think, over the last 10 years we’ve opened I think over 50 new schools. So we do that all the time and our process has changed from how we gather parent input, the timeline that we use for rezoning. We used to do it just a few months before the school opens. There are a lot of feelings attached to that, both positive and negative.

 

And so we’ve backed it up so that we rezone, like, a year ahead of time. Additionally, we do a lot more with parent information and transparencies. Our meetings, we have meetings that are at various stages of the construction site. We give parents opportunity to give us feedback when we’re drawing the lines for the zoning. They provide feedback both virtually and then at several meetings that we have with the public. So that, I think, has helped a great deal. 

 

As far as the staffing challenges, we have amped up our recruitment and retention efforts so that we’re trying to hire more staff members. We’re looking at growing our own programs and partnerships with some of the local universities. I mentioned you could get an AA degree, your first two years, so we’re right now we’re looking at the possibility of students who may want to pursue a career in education. They can leave high school with their two year degree, go to a partnering university that we would look at reduced or free tuition in exchange for them coming to work for OCPS and so that’s in the works. We also have current partnerships where individuals that do have an AA degree are able to pursue their four-year teaching degree at a reduced or no-cost rate. Those numbers are smaller because there has been that decline in even interest. 

 

And the other piece that we’re doing for recruitment is looking at alternative pathways. If we’re looking at individuals that have a two-year degree, can we look at micro-credentialing, where they work through either on-the-job training or training opportunities while they’re working, and they then gain that additional two years of experience to give them the qualifications to teach with the opening of new schools. There is a lot of excitement, but there are also those drawbacks that impact us as a whole.  

 

RYAN ESTES: I have no doubt that’s absolutely true. This has been a fascinating conversation. Dr. Vasquez, I know that you have a lot going on, so thank you again for taking time to speak with me today.

 

DR. VASQUEZ: It was a pleasure. I hope you have a great rest of your day.

 

RYAN ESTES: Thank you. You too. 

 

Field Trip is a podcast from Frontline Education, the leading provider of school administrative software. To learn more, visit FrontlineEducation.com/FieldTripPodcast For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening and have a great day.