Palm Beach County school enrollment has hit a record 193,973, according to the year’s first head count. But for the first time in at least a decade, none of that growth happened in charter schools, where instead enrollment fell by 939 students.
Even so, with an overall enrollment of 19,803, charter schools can still claim as they first did three years ago that one in 10 of the county’s students is on their rolls.
Taken on Monday, Aug. 28, the eleventh day count is an in-house enrollment check used to fine tune teacher staffing. An official count for budget purposes is taken statewide in October.
Schools in direct competition with neighboring charters have worked to make themselves more attractive to families in recent years. Some have added programs in robotics, medicine, and the environment.
This year, one elementary has begun to stretch into the middle grades to reclaim lost enrollment.
But more than half of that drop in charter enrollment, 497 students, can be attributed to four closings: Belle Glade Excel, Boca Raton Charter, Learning Path Academy and Riviera Beach Maritime Academy.
Belle Glade Excel and Learning Path Academy tanked after repeated failed grades from the state. Riviera Beach Maritime was pushed into limbo when the landlord, the city of Riviera Beach, ended the school’s lease.
Meanwhile, the beleaguered Eagle Arts Academy of Wellington saw its rolls drop by 346 students, leaving its total enrollment at 431.
Jim Pegg, director of the school district’s charter school office, said that charter school growth has been “relatively flat for a few years” but that the drop was nonetheless noteworthy.
“These are always parental decisions,” he said. “The parents are making decisions to remain within the district schools.”
Enrollment also fell at the district’s virtual schools, alternative schools and in pre-kindergarten programs.
This year’s overall growth at the district’s 165 elementary, middle and high schools as well as its alternative and charter schools is less than half what it was last year, when nearly 2,900 more students poured in through the classroom doors.
Still, it’s enough to fill 32 of those schools to capacity or beyond, including 10 of 23 high schools.
What schools are most crowded? Have the most students?
Forest Hill High School remains the most crowded school in the district with 2,463 students on a campus built for 1,837. Thanks to a boundary change that siphoned dozens of students out of the school, its rolls grew by only a dozen in August.
Even though John I. Leonard High welcomed 16 fewer students this fall, it is still home to the most students, with an enrollment of 3,591.
Among high schools, Palm Beach Lakes saw the biggest jump in enrollment with 268 additional students – some of those coming from boundary changes at Forest Hill High.
Relief for crowded high schools is, for now, years down the road. The district has two high schools planned in the next 10 years, one off Lyons Road near Lake Worth Road and another west of Royal Palm Beach. A third high school, a West Boynton Beach High, could be in the mix if developer GL Homes gets its wish to build homes in that region of the county.
The district’s largest middle school, Palm Springs Middle, grew by 115 students to an enrollment of 1,636. Wellington Landings Middle saw the most growth among middle schools with 139 additional students.
At elementary school level, Timber Trace in Palm Beach Gardens and Citrus Cove in Boynton Beach gained the most students, with 123 and 111 additions respectively.
After years of crowding, Calusa Elementary in Boca Raton, saw relief courtesy of a cascade of boundary changes in the region that dropped enrollment by 117 students.
Freedom Shores Elementary in Boynton Beach saw an enrollment drop of 109 students.
As for charter schools, after several years of sharp growth, Pegg said a slowdown was inevitable. There’s a natural limit, he said, to the number of parents interested in enrolling children in charters, and this year’s decrease is an indication that the county has reached it.
“There is, for lack of a better term, a cap,” he said. “If you look over the last three years it’s been relatively flat. This year we’re looking at a drop”
Still, he said the overall quality of the county’s charter schools is rising as more low-performing charter schools are forced to close. This summer, two small F-rated charters shut their doors.
The overall quality of the charters will increase, he said, “the more we close the lower functioning charter schools.”