- By Sonja Isger Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Going into this school year, the district’s enrollment forecasters expected nearly 3,700 students to walk through Boca Raton High’s doors. And they were braced for even more, because that’s how Boca Raton High has rolled for 15 years – always seating more students than predicted, to the point that it ranks second among the county’s most crowded high schools.
When authorities counted heads Monday, on the 11th day of the school year, Boca Raton’s enrollment clocked in 291 students under what was projected and 161 fewer than the same day last year, according to Jason Link, the district’s head of enrollment and demographics.
Principal Susie King can feel the difference, “a little bit.”
“I wish I could tell you there’s a huge difference, but there’s really not. You can see it during class changes,” King said Wednesday morning.
Of course, 3,397 students on a campus built for 2,298 is still too crowded – about 116 percent of capacity. But it’s still a success, one that Link attributes to a variety of efforts.
Some of those efforts were in-house – Boca Raton High School accepted only one student from outside its boundaries into its choice program, a ROTC student. The district employed this tactic with similar success at Forest Hill High in West Palm Beach, the most crowded school in the district.
Also, Link said students with certain disabilities that may have once been steered to Boca High for programming there were directed to other less crowded schools for those services instead.
The most talked about maneuver in the effort to trim the rolls was a promised crackdown on boundary jumpers, students who say they live in the school’s attendance zones, but don’t.
This is another go-to move in the district’s playbook, historically weeding 1 percent to 5 percent of the population by prompting students to be withdrawn from a crowded school, Link said.
Boca High’s rolls were turned over to the people of LexisNexis, a corporation that can tap legal, government and business sources to flag possibly false addresses, spotting mismatched documents or gaps in timelines. District staff then sort through the flags, because as Link says, “There’s homelessness. There’s divorced families. It can be sensitive, so that’s why we then check and do due diligence to verify that list further.”
Over the summer, Boca High sent 150 to 200 letters to students with addresses that had been flagged, inviting them to come to the school in person to verify that they live within the school’s boundaries or have an accepted reason, such as a choice program, to be at the school, King said.
About 10 to 15, came in and were verified, King’s staff reports.
The district is still sorting through some of those remaining flags this week, Link said. No one has been “unenrolled” – yet.
But just the fear of being turned out may have been enough.
“A lot of these were just deterred. They just didn’t show,” Link said. Particularly, freshmen.
“The telltale is 758 students in their ninth-grade class – their smallest ninth grade class in six years,” Link said. The sophomores count 816 students. The juniors also outnumber freshmen. “Had we done nothing, I guarantee you the ninth-grade class would’ve been 870.”
As schools grow beyond their capacity, facilities like libraries and lunch rooms are stretched beyond their effectiveness. Teachers outnumber classrooms, requiring sometimes dozens to “float” to rooms left empty by a teacher on break.
Dozens of teachers float at Boca High.
Another symptom of the crowding: The school’s pep rallies are broadcast to classrooms because not all of the students fit in the gym.
“Seniors will always be invited. For underclassmen, we invite based on attendance or grades, or if they’re dressed for spirit week. We have to get creative,” said King, who came to Boca High 15 years ago when enrollment was closer to 1,700 students.
The crowding problems at the campus are regular topics around town and in city meetings.
But they also are reflective of crowding across the district’s high schools. All but three of 23 traditional high schools are filled to 90 percent capacity or more – too full to accept students from outside their boundaries. When the counting is done, at least 10 are expected to be filled beyond capacity.
The district is seeking the state’s signoff to build another high school near Lyons and Lake Worth roads. But the signature is months overdue, Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy has said, and the delay is stalling the necessary next steps.
Last week, state officials came to Palm Beach County to delve into the details.
The 11th day enrollment numbers are used internally by the district to re-position staff where it is needed most. The full report from that count is expected this week. In October, an official statewide count is taken for budget purposes.