Jamie Heit had a list of criteria for where to live when her husband's job suddenly relocated the couple and their children three years ago from the East Coast to North Texas.
Good schools were at the top. A neighborhood close to the Dallas North Tollway for her husband's commute to Uptown followed close behind.
Bonus points for Heit — whose high school graduating class didn't even top 100 — if the high schools were on the smaller side. (She automatically nixed the mega, one-high-school town of Allen, the state's largest high school with nearly 6,700 students last school year.) Show Full Story
The family landed on another Collin County district: Frisco ISD, the fastest-growing district in Texas.
"It's easy to take what you're familiar with and what you found successful and try to replicate it," said Heit, who has three children in elementary, middle and high school. "Frisco just sort of fit that for us the best."
The family is one of a couple thousand that every year opt to move into the relatively diverse northern Collin County school district, where minority students tally more than half of the student population. In October, Frisco ISD celebrated the enrollment of its 60,000th student with balloons and a pep rally.
Known for strong academics and a small high school philosophy of about 2,100 students, Frisco ISD's reputation is passed along by parents, co-workers and friends.
"It was a little bit like Disney World. Everything was new and perfectly planned," said Pat Guseman, CEO of Population and Survey Analysts, a demographic firm hired by Frisco ISD to study its growth.
In 2018, Money magazine named Frisco the best place to live. In early December, city officials announced that the PGA of America was moving its headquarters to Frisco -- already home to the Dallas Cowboys' headquarters at The Star and other professional sports teams.
The district's robust new housing stock, location near the tollway and proximity to Legacy West in Plano and many corporations is another draw, parents such as Pavan Bondugula said. A software engineer for Bank of America, he moved his family from New Jersey to Texas in 2017.
"First thing was the weather," he said, laughing about the move. "The second thing was affordability. Meaning, obviously, I can't buy a brand-new house in a good school community in New Jersey."
The family rented an apartment while deciding where to buy a home, eventually landing on Frisco ISD at the suggestion of co-workers and other parents.
"There's just been a lot of good PR, and there's land here," said Todd Fouche, Frisco ISD's deputy superintendent of business and operations.
In the last five school years, Frisco ISD's student enrollment has grown by more than 15,000, according to a demographic report compiled for the district.
By comparison, nearby Plano ISD lost about 1,200 students during that same period. And McKinney ISD grew by about 500 students during those five years, the report states.
Frisco and McKinney district leaders and demographers say it's difficult to unravel why there's such a wide discrepancy in the student enrollment growth patterns of the neighboring Collin County cities.
"I've looked for 'What is the one thing?' And it's not just one thing," McKinney ISD school board President Curtis Rippee said of the faster growth in neighboring Frisco ISD, adding that most of McKinney's growth occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Currently, MISD's enrollment hovers at just below 25,000 and is expected to double in size by the time the city is fully built out.
"There are a lot of different, minor factors that are not necessarily negative," Rippee said. "I don't think the student population growth is anybody's opinion of the school district."
Frisco and McKinney each have populations that hover at about 180,000, although school boundaries and city limits don't align perfectly. Some McKinney families are zoned for Frisco ISD, as are some in Plano and Little Elm. Both school districts earned a grade of A this year under the state's new A-F accountability system.
And the city of McKinney is growing. In the last two decades, its population has increased a whopping 365 percent. And by 2040, the population is expected to grow by 100,000 to roughly 284,000, according to city estimates.
But where are the kids?
Rocky Gardiner, director of school district consulting for Templeton Demographics, said much of McKinney ISD's slower growth has to do with housing and who is buying the homes.
"We're still doing some research ... but we believe that the new housing in McKinney is just not producing kids yet," he said, adding that birth rates overall in the U.S. have been on the decline. The country's fertility rate fell to an all-time low in 2017 and the number of births was the lowest reported since 1987, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"It could be infrastructure. It could be people want to be in Frisco for whatever reason that is," said Gardiner, whose firm also is studying or has studied demographics for several Collin County districts, including Frisco, Plano, Princeton and Prosper. "Parents pick different reasons, whether it's the size of the schools or proximity to campuses."
Frisco ISD has built nearly 70 schools since 1993, when fewer than 2,000 students attended the district's four schools. Growth is expected to continue but at a declining rate as the district inches toward buildout. (Frisco ISD is about 80 percent of the way there.)
And as it inches toward capacity, student enrollment growth continues to move north, where housing stock and land are plentiful. Neighboring Prosper ISD also is among Texas' fastest-growing school districts, having added more than 6,600 students in the last five school years -- an increase of about 120 percent.
How much Frisco ISD continues to grow will depend on how the city's empty land develops, Fouche said, pointing to a large swath called Brinkmann Ranch that the city bought last year.
But growing this fast has its challenges. Two years ago, the district failed to persuade voters to approve a 13-cent tax ratification election. That led to a priority-based budgeting process and districtwide spending cuts, including fewer new teachers hired to accommodate a growing student population that led to larger class sizes.
Frisco ISD ranks among the top school districts in the state for classroom waivers -- needed for kindergarten through fourth-grade classrooms with student-teacher ratios greater than 22-to-1 -- putting it in line with larger, urban districts. This school year, the district has 189 classrooms with waivers from the state, up from 146 in late September.
But in December, the district's board of trustees approved several amendments to its 2018-19 operating budget after voters in November approved the district's second attempt for a TRE. That includes hiring 75 regular and special education teachers to reduce class sizes this spring.
Fouche said the greater impact on class size will happen in the fall when the district is able to hire more teachers ahead of next school year.
"That's another piece of the bumpiness of growth sometimes," he said.
A couple of years ago, because of the district's torrid growth, officials considered moving away from the long-standing strategy of building more but smaller high schools. But the small campus philosophy -- what the district calls its "student opportunities model" -- is one of the key drivers bringing families to Frisco ISD.
In a 2017 district survey completed by more than 4,000 people, about 80 percent of respondents said the small school model, which only applies to high schools, played some role in their decision to choose Frisco ISD. And about 22 percent of people said it was the deciding factor in their move to the district.
In August, the district opened its 10th high school, Memorial High. And construction is scheduled to begin this year on its 11th, near Stacy Road and Collin McKinney Parkway.
"When we tell people from other districts how fast we've grown, they don't think that's possible," Fouche said. "But it's kind of what we do."