Dwindling student body could see Odyssey Middle School close

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story inaccurately said the last closure was almost 50 years ago.

Unable to fill even half of its nearly 1,500 seats, a Boynton Beach area middle school could become the first traditional public school in the county to close in more than 25 years if the School Board moves forward with recommendations to be presented in a workshop today.

Odyssey Middle School, which sits on Woolbright Road west of Military Trail, would lose what’s left of its student body to other schools by the fall of 2018.

The campus then would be leased to South Tech Academy and South Tech Prep charter schools, likely filling the school to capacity with grades six through 12, district officials said Tuesday.

But today’s meeting will cover ground well beyond Odyssey’s campus, addressing the programs as well as crowding and emptying at schools from Palm Beach Gardens to Boca Raton.

Some recommendations have been in the works for years – such as expanding Plumosa Elementary to serve kindergarten through eighth grade, what they’re calling a K-8 center.

Other recommendations will have their first airing at this workshop, including:

  • Creating K-8 centers at Addison Mizner in Boca Raton and Hidden Oaks in suburban Boynton Beach.
  • Building a middle school next door to Sunset Palms Elementary in the western half of the region once served by Odyssey Middle.
  • Adding room for hundreds more students at Forest Hill, Olympic Heights and Spanish River high schools and Boca Raton’s Verde Elementary.
  • Dividing the populations of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune and Lincoln elementaries in Riviera Beach so students would begin at Bethune from pre-kindergarten through second grade and then head to Lincoln for grades 3-5.

“I’m really interested in bringing more innovation and strategy to how we use our buildings,” Superintendent Robert Avossa said Tuesday. “I need feedback from the board.”

As for Odyssey? “Clearly the community is sending us a message about that school. With all the choice options that are available, they’re not picking Odyssey. Could we be meeting the kids’ interests in a better way?” Avossa said.

Odyssey’s enrollment problems have been brewing for years. Attempts to draw students with choice programs have fallen short and a proposal almost three years ago to turn the campus into a K-8 center met opposition from the school board, with Debra Robinson objecting that the proposal “added to the divide of the have and have-nots.”

Robinson said Tuesday that she is open to moving South Tech but remains concerned about what happens to the children, many of them from poor neighborhoods, who will be displaced when Odyssey closes.

Built in 2001, the school was positioned in a central corridor with boundaries that reached from the ocean to the east to the growing suburbs of the west.

But district boundary records show the parents in those western suburbs overwhelmingly have abandoned the school – 603 students living in the school’s boundaries attend charter schools, most of them go to Somerset Academy, a school for grades 6-12.

“The reasons I hear for not sending them in the past years is the school (Odyssey) is focused on the lower 25 percent, but they don’t have programs for the higher (performing) children,” said school board member Karen Brill, whose children attended Odyssey years ago.

Placing a new middle school farther west, next door to Sunset Palms, allows the district to compete with charter schools and also makes room where families continue to move.

The proposal also gives South Tech charter schools an opportunity to leave the aging campus it leases from the district, said Jim Pegg, director of the district’s charter school office.

Built in 1975, South Tech Academy was one of the district’s three technical high schools until a staff and parent vote converted it to a charter in 2004 and then expanded it, creating a Prep middle in 2013. It is among the county’s top-performing charters.

With South Tech moved to Odyssey’s digs, the district is also free to use the old South Tech property to expand its south county bus compound – another need highlighted in the proposal, said Chief Financial Officer Mike Burke.

The workshop discussion is just the first step. Next up will be sorting logistics, including scheduling the projects, reviewing the boundaries, figuring out where to move staff. And, of course, staff must calculate how much this will cost and how it will be paid for.

Some but not all costs will be covered by the voter-approved sales tax increase. The district also must deal with state construction cost caps and maybe even proposed laws that would divert some money to charter schools. The state Department of Education also must sign off on any project that adds capacity to schools.

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