As enrollment in traditional public schools remains flat, charter schools are becoming an increasingly popular choice in Pinellas County, according to school district projections for the coming academic year.
Four new charter schools are expected to open this fall, bringing the county's total to 22. At least another four are set to expand. District officials are projecting a 28 percent increase in enrollment, with about 1,400 more students attending charter schools in the 2013-14 school year. Charters enrolled about 5,000 students last year.
That jump is despite the recent closure of three charters.
Unlike most of Florida's big urban school districts, Pinellas County Schools hasn't faced much competition from charters. Counties like Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Broward have been flooded with charter applications in recent years, many of them from chains opening multiple schools. Hillsborough has about twice as many charter schools as Pinellas.
But that has been changing.
Pinellas saw its biggest jump in charter enrollment in 2011-12, with about 4,100 students compared to the previous year's 2,580. Enrollment continued to climb in 2012-13.
The growth in charters has coincided with years of declining enrollment in Pinellas. The district has lost about 12,000 students in the last 10 years, with many families leaving during the recession.
Dot Clark, who reviews charters for the school district, said she's seen a rise in the number of charter applications. This year, there were 19. To help with an increasing workload, Clark's one-person charter office will add a position this coming year.
Clark said many of the applications are from companies with charter schools in other parts of Florida. Most of the applicants this year, however, withdrew. Four charters were denied.
Charters use taxpayer money, but are run privately. Their independence from school districts is meant to allow them to innovate, and charter supporters say they provide families with more choice when it comes to selecting a school. Critics say charters sap resources from traditional public schools.
Under state law, district officials have little latitude to deny applications from charters with solid finances and academics. They also can't say no to high-performing charters looking to expand.
One new charter school, University Preparatory Academy, has been competing for students from some of the district's lowest-performing schools — Campbell Park, Maximo, and Melrose elementaries. University Prep hopes to open next month with more than 500 students.
Superintendent Mike Grego said the district isn't directly competing against charter schools. But their growth has been noticed. District officials are studying areas where students are leaving neighborhood schools for charters, and a task force is working on revamping some lackluster "attractor" and magnet programs.
The district also has stepped up its efforts to promote its own schools, creating brochures to highlight special programs and accomplishments. "We're having that conversation," Grego said.
Despite the growth in enrollment, charter students still are a relatively small portion of the school system, accounting for about 5 percent of the 102,000-student district in the 2012-13 school year.
Grego said the district ended the year with more students than it started with and he expects to see slight growth — about 400 students — in the coming year. He said charter projections also might be a little high.
"It's still early," he said.
Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Fitz_ly.