In late August, Palm Beach County school officials invited folks from the state Department of Education to visit our expansive district. The goal: to make the case that the state should approve the district’s plan to build three new schools in the next four years – plans that have languished without the state’s approval for six months.
The district argued that an elementary in Boca Raton, a middle school west of Boynton Beach and a high school in the county’s midsection near Lyons and Lake Worth roads is desperately needed to address crowding in those regions.
Parents, city commissions, even state senators, have raised their voices and written letters to support the district’s case.
The problem is while some campuses are spilling over with students, others are unable to find enough students to fill the seats they have.
The district has room for nearly 196,000 students. Its 166 traditional elementary, middle and high schools will count closer to 174,000 this year – leaving about 22,000 seats to spare. (Another 20,000 students are in charter schools.)
Still, there is a space crunch, and it is most pronounced in patches of rampant building (or in Boca Raton’s case, anywhere stamped with its desirable zip code). The forsaken seats tend to be in poorer communities up and down the coast and in the Glades.
District leaders argue eliminating the crowds at some schools by filling the seats at others would require so much busing it would be unhealthy for students, untenable to their parents and unaffordable for the school system.
The county, they note, is the biggest area-wise in the state. It outsizes both Delaware and Rhode Island.
Though the state won’t comment directly on its reasoning, those inside the negotiations say it’s all about the numbers with little regard for the geography.
And so for the sake of getting the picture, The Palm Beach Post presents these maps of school enrollment.
Schools in red are filled beyond their capacity as defined by the state - ie not including portables.
Schools in orange are 90 percent full or more. The state requires any school with capacity to spare to accept students from outside their boundaries under the umbrella of “open enrollment.” The district says these schools in orange are so full the district isn’t accepting those outside students.
Schools in green are healthy, with enough students to offer a variety of programs but not so many that principals seek to create classrooms from other spaces such as the library or computer rooms.
Schools in blue need more students. The district has never defined what constitutes a school that is too empty. A couple of years ago, one committee suggested any school operating at 60 percent full or less be closed, but that never came to pass. The schools in blue here are at 65 percent full or less.
This map offers more than meets the eye. Roll over a dot for the school’s name and a forecast of how full the school will be over the next five years. The maps were built using Palm Beach County School District’s 2018 Five-Year Enrollment Projections.
Maps created by The Palm Beach Post’s Mahima Singh.
High schools - crowded nearly everywhere
High schools - it’s crowded everywhere
The district has 23 traditional high schools with more than 54,000 students – the number fluctuates by day. (In October 2017, it hit 54,211, this August it was 53,783 and expected to grow, as it always does , in the next month.)
The number of seats however, holds steady at 54,748, which means with high school rolls expected to grow by 2,700 in the next four years, the students will outgrow the district’s capacity.
On the district’s first headcount of 2018, projected enrollment was off, and the rolls at high school dropped by 371 students. District officials are sorting out the reasons, but the falloff did little to change the realities on the district’s most crowded campuses.
*Ten high schools are beyond full, with more students than they were built to hold.
*Only five schools have enough room to take students from outside their boundaries through the state’s open enrollment program.
*John I. Leonard in Greenacres has more students than any other school in the district with more than 3,500. Leonard’s capacity is 3,159.
*Forest Hill High in West Palm Beach is the most crowded school in the district with 2,480 students in campus built for 1,837. That’s 135 percent of capacity.
*Pahokee Middle/Senior has the most room to spare with only 44 percent of its seats full.
*The average high school in Palm Beach County is built for 2,380 students. Park Vista and John I Leonard high schools can hold more than 3,100 each.
*The district owns property for a new high school on Lyons Road south of Lake Worth Road.
*When high school rolls grow too big, not every teacher gets his or her own classroom, lunch lines become longer and, at least at Boca High, pep rallies become an event not every student is invited to attend. No invitation? Watch the live stream.
Middle schools - thousands of seats to spare
The district has 33 middle schools with the capacity for more than 44,600 students, but enrollment falls well short of that with about 7,000 seats to spare.
* Nearly 60 percent of those empty seats are in six schools: Crestwood in Royal Palm Beach, Lake Shore in Belle Glade, Bear Lakes and John F. Kennedy in West Palm Beach and Carver in Delray Beach. Village Academy is the sixth school, but it is a choice-only program open to grades K through 12, and capacity in that school is more challenging to measure at all grade levels.
*The county’s middle schools are built to hold anywhere from 1,000 (Lantana Middle) to more than 1,700 (Jupiter Middle).
*17 middle schools are so full, having hit 90 percent capacity, that students can’t transfer in under the state’s open enrollment plan.
*Eagles Landing in Boca is the most crowded at 119 percent of capacity. Crestwood is the least at 46 percent.
*Boca Raton Middle, built for 1,432 students, counted 1,550 on the 11th day of the 2018 school year.
*Palm Springs Middle boasted the most students at a middle school on the 11th day with 1,593 students on a campus built for 1,704.
Elementary schools - 15,000 extra seats but where?
The district’s 109 elementary schools have room for 96,167 students, but enrollment is closer to 81,000.
*That’s more than 15,000 seats to spare – but 6,100 of those seats are in 15 schools, almost all of them in poor neighborhoods.
*12 elementaries have more than 1,000 students, but 10 of those were built to hold at least that many (Calusa and Verde in the Boca area were not.)
*Of the 12 with more than 1,000 students, only five are beyond capacity.
*The county’s elementaries come in a variety of sizes with some capable of holding only 300 (Rosenwald in South Bay is the smallest), while others are built for more than 1,400 (Barton and Manatee in Lake Worth, C.O. Taylor/Kirklane in Palm Springs).
*In the 2016/17 school year, Calusa was so crowded, officials imposed a boundary change that shuffled 300 students from Calusa and five nearby schools to provide relief. Calusa remained over capacity but got some space.
The principal at Calusa was forced to carve classrooms out of space in the school’s library, administrative offices and computer labs.
Maps created by The Palm Beach Post’s Mahima Singh.