District eyes options for overcrowded, as well as shrinking, schools

Forest Hill and John I. Leonard high schools are packed too full of students and something must be done to turn the tide.

The crowding threat at Sunset Palms Elementary comes from homes that haven’t been built yet, so that could be solved before new students move in.

Then there are schools such as Odyssey Middle near Boynton Beach, which have more chairs than students.

This summer, the Palm Beach County School District’s budget advisory committee told board members they should consider either closing or consolidating any school filled to less than 60 percent of its capacity. The move could save between $1 million and $2 million per year.

» INTERACTIVE: How crowded is your child's school?

After the 11-day count, 16 schools meet that criteria. The list includes A and B graded schools in or near Wellington and Royal Palm Beach, including Polo Park, Crestwood and Osceola Creek middle schools, as well as Cypress Trails elementary. Eleven schools in low-income communities – including seven in the Glades — that earned Ds and Fs are also on the list.

For years these issues were solved with the hard edge of new boundary lines, but increasingly the district is hoping to create balance by giving parents more choices.

Administrators and school board members are still grappling with what that will look like. A workshop on expanding school choices is slated for next month.

More students than expected

The challenges are new for a district that for about a decade grew by 5,000 students a year, only to begin a contraction in the face of hard economic times and the rise of charter schools.

When educators took the school year’s first enrollment count Sept. 2 , 161,926 students were in district-run schools – a couple hundred more than last year, despite an expected decrease.

Charter schools counted 18,617 students – that’s 3,000 more than last year but about 1,400 fewer than forecast, possibly because some larger charters closed during the summer and a few others failed to open.

Now the district must address enrollment extremes of crowding and under-enrollment.

The district’s boundary advisory committee has a “watch list” of 26 schools that are at 110 percent capacity or look like they will be in the next five years (using a formula for capacity that counts only the seats in permanent buildings, not those in portable concrete classrooms).

This fall, that list is topped by Calusa Elementary in Boca Raton, Forest Hill High in West Palm Beach and John I. Leonard High in Greenacres.

“It looks that way – like we’re crowded – but we’re really not,” said Calusa Principal Jamie Wyatt.

Calusa has 963 students — 163 over its capacity, at least on paper. But Wyatt has made more room on campus during the past two years by moving district administrative staff off the grounds and bringing in several “concretables,” as the portables are called. “So each child is in a regular classroom and we are definitely very close to being in class-size compliance.”

Forest Hill High, meanwhile, is at 117 percent of its capacity.

Forest Hill is a victim of its own success, the district’s top boundary planner Jason Link told the boundary committee last week.

For years, the school was shrinking, but administrators battled back by creating specialty programs, including academies in culinary arts, engineering, environmental science and Navy Junior ROTC. It also hosts an International Baccalaureate program.

“We’re seeing increases of 100 kids per year. … They’re attracting more kids back to the choice,” Link said. Forest Hill has 100 more students than expected this fall, bringing its enrollment to 2,141 on a campus meant for 1,830.

But before the committee wields the boundary pen, Link said the district will investigate two less painful options:

First, can it trim the number of students in some choice programs by limiting enrollment to only those who live within Forest Hill’s boundaries?

Then the school will double check that everyone attending Forest Hill should indeed be there by boundary or by choice enrollment.

John I. Leonard will get similar scrutiny. It logged 3,236 students, making it the largest school in the district — with 200 students more than the campus is supposed to hold.

The staff aims to find a solution in the next month to six weeks, Link said.

Filling some seats a challenge

More daunting might be the schools that are emptying, even as the district struggles with a $70 million hole in its capital budget.

The most simple math would suggest the district has 34,000 empty seats across the county.

The schools in the Glades have 4,000 more seats than students, based on their reported capacities.

“Under capacity in the Glades is a little bit different than under capacity at the coast,” said Cheryl Alligood, the district’s chief academic officer.

The small, remote towns at Lake Okeechobee’s edge have been hit hard economically, and for years their children attended classes in aging buildings that were not comparable to newer buildings on the coast, Alligood said.

“We look at the Glades a little differently because we know we want to provide the same opportunities in the Glades. We’re not going to take kids and bus them across the Glades (to the coast),” Alligood said. Those schools are built smaller, she said. Only Gove Elementary in Belle Glade, with its dual-language choice program, is full.

“It’s a bigger picture than just saying our schools are under capacity,” said school board member Marcia Andrews, whose district includes the Glades.

Board member Debra Robinson, whose district includes the under-capacity Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary and John F. Kennedy Middle in Riviera Beach, contends the district should look not at the state’s seat count but by what the school is approved for based on the programs it has — something called “program capacity,” which district staff agree is a truer reflection of space use.

Both board members agree that before closing schools or combining them, a districtwide policy must be written so that any closure is done fairly.

The key to resolving the problem is to understand why a school is emptying and finding programs that could bring students back, Alligood says.

The staff is working to ask charter school parents why they left district-run schools, and reviewing student data to see where the moves happened. They’re also looking for programs that appeal to parents.

Odyssey Middle, a B-rated suburban Boynton Beach school that lost almost 100 students since last year, could get such a change.

“We will be going back to the board with a suggestion to consider looking at Odyssey going to a K-8 school,” Alligood said, noting the appeal of kindergarten-through- middle-school campuses. The school has 819 students and capacity for at least 1,490.

Said Alligood: “We’re not just looking at it now from a boundary perspective as we’ve traditionally done it.”

Palm Beach Post researcher Michelle Quigley contributed to this story.

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