Where did hundreds of expected high school and elementary school students go? The Palm Beach County School District’s chief demographer has tallied the annual 11th-day headcount taken earlier this week and is now scratching his head.
Overall, his department’s projections weren’t far off. Expected to break 195,000, the actual count came in just short of 194,500, Jason Link said.
That’s still 527 students more than were counted at the same time last year and continues a growth pattern that stretches back several years.
While the totals may seem straight forward, they contain more than one mystery that staff will be investigating in the days to come, Link said.
Top among those mysteries: Despite yearslong trends to the contrary, high school and elementary school enrollment not only failed to grow this year, they went in the other direction. They dropped — if only slightly by 371 and 31 students, respectively.
“We’re not in a recession. Housing and construction hasn’t come to a screeching halt like in the recession. … All the key indicators would lead us to assume enrollments would increase,” Link said after publishing the numbers Wednesday. “Last year, high school was up 1,201. Going back another year on the 11th day, high school was up 917. Then all of a sudden you’ve got a decline, which is really unexpected.”
Link has done this for more than a decade. He can sometimes forecast enrollment at a school to within a handful of students. And to be fair, the high school and elementary school drops represent less than 1 percent of their respective enrollments at 54,000 and 77,000.
“I was surprised,” Link said. “Our high school (enrollments) have been increasing for a number of years.”
In a stream of consciousness rehash of the math, Link utters a factor that never before entered the calculus.
“Is there a Parkland-Stoneman Douglas effect?” Have parents chosen other options in the wake of the school shooting just south of the county line? Maybe.
Even Broward County doesn’t know if February’s tragedy will ding its enrollment. Link’s counterpart there, Patrick Sipple, said his district doesn’t take a first headcount until September. He said Broward did not see a spike in withdrawals after the shooting.
Where could Palm Beach County students have gone?
Parents could opt for a charter school over a traditional district-run school. Because charter schools operate with district money those students still land in the overall 11th day count, but they would be accounted for as charter schools, not counted as district elementary, middle or high schools. Charter school enrollment grew by 217 this year.
Students also may have moved to private school, moved out of district or sought an education at home. The district can’t track private school enrollment and state numbers aren’t current.
As for homeschoolers, it’s hard to say, said Cheryl Bottini, who tracks those counts for the district. Homeschooling is a year-round endeavor that doesn’t pause for an 11th day count. Families must notify the district of their intent to homeschool, but they don’t have to say why they’re homeschooling and the district can’t track them by grade.
Last May, the state counted 5,428 homeschooled students in Palm Beach County. By June 30, it was up to 6,000, Bottini said. But the number is fluid, going up and down continually.
“It’s not from home ed,” Bottini said. “It could be from having so many choices.” Those choices include the state’s online option, Florida Virtual, and the county’s version of the same. “Every year we increase a little more and more,” she said, but she hasn’t seen a change that stood out over previous changes, she said.
While falling enrollment calculations are a puzzle Link will continue to sort, they at least spell a reprieve for a couple of the district’s most crowded high schools — Boca Raton and John I. Leonard in Greenacres, which both are full beyond capacity, with 3,397 and 3,517 students, respectively. John I. Leonard dropped by 74 students.
Boca High was among four high schools to see more than 100 students fall off their rolls in this count that is used to balance staff assignments within the district.
A concerted effort to curb enrollment at Boca Raton High that resulted in 161 students fewer this year may have inadvertently added to the overall drop in the high school numbers.
The school’s rolls were scrutinized by an outside vendor to flag anyone attending the school under a false address. It flagged 100 to 150 students. Some likely now attend other Palm Beach County schools, but there were some Broward County addresses among them, Link said.
Meanwhile two high schools, Royal Palm Beach and Olympic Heights, saw their rolls swell by more than 100 students. The district also saw growth in prekindergarten and middle school enrollment, adding 175 and 582 students respectively.
The 11th day count is only a preview of the district’s official enrollment. A statewide count for budget purposes is conducted in October. Enrollment in the district typically grows by more than 1,000 students in that time.
Big student swings
Several high schools in Palm Beach County recorded triple-digit shifts in the numbers of students enrolled on the 11th day of school this year when compared to last year.
Lake Worth High, down 233.
Palm Beach Lakes High, down 127.
Boynton Beach High, down 121.
Boca Raton High, down 116.
Olympic Heights, up 136.
Royal Palm Beach High, up 104.