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Hillsborough charter schools continue to attract more families

Charter enrollment is up about 8 percent while school district totals show no gains.
The numbers are significant as the Hillsborough school district wrestles with dwindling enrollment in some of its older traditional schools.
The numbers are significant as the Hillsborough school district wrestles with dwindling enrollment in some of its older traditional schools. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Sep. 8|Updated Sep. 8

Families in Hillsborough County are continuing to send their children in growing numbers to independently operated charter schools instead of those run by the district.

Totals released by the district on Tuesday showed a 6% increase in charter enrollment, from 33,079 on the 20th day of school in September 2021 to 35,050 this week.

A chart contained in Hillsborough County school district documents compares 2021 and 2022 enrollment numbers. Not included are two schools from the IDEA charter school chain that are supervised by the state. They showed a net gain of about 750 students this year, adding to the charter total for the county.
A chart contained in Hillsborough County school district documents compares 2021 and 2022 enrollment numbers. Not included are two schools from the IDEA charter school chain that are supervised by the state. They showed a net gain of about 750 students this year, adding to the charter total for the county. [ Hillsborough County School District ]

The district’s numbers do not include two schools from the IDEA charter school chain, which report directly to the state. Including those two schools, which showed a net gain of roughly 750 students, would push the growth rate closer to 8%.

Much of the growth, which adds up to about 1,100 students, was at Florida Connections Academy, a virtual charter school that is based in Hillsborough but serves students around the state.

The numbers are significant as the Hillsborough school district wrestles with dwindling enrollment in some of its older traditional schools.

A consultant is studying the often contentious issue of school boundaries, with a report due by January. The district is hosting virtual town hall meetings in the coming week, so parents and other community residents can discuss the problem and possible solutions.

The meetings will take place at 6 p.m. every evening from Monday to Friday. More details are available at hcps-boundary.org.

Related: Hillsborough residents asked to weigh in on possible school boundary changes

This year’s 20-day count shows 16% of Hillsborough public school students prefer charters over traditional schools. That compares to 12% statewide, 9% in Pasco and 7% in Pinellas, according to the most recent data available.

The charter percentage in Hillsborough has been inching up for the past decade. Combined with district-run magnet schools and other choice options, the migration has left some district schools largely abandoned and struggling academically.

Individual district schools losing students this year included Greco Middle (189), Eisenhower Middle (116), Miles Elementary (115) and Smith Middle (94). There were gains in many high schools including Sumner, which grew by 364 students, Armwood (239) and Alonso (205).

Among the charter schools, SouthShore showed a net gain of 247 students and SLAM Academy at Apollo Beach grew by 242 students.

Districtwide, enrollment stayed flat for traditional public schools at just over 185,000 students.

Hillsborough School Board chairperson Nadia Combs, a critic of charters, said she is not alarmed at this year’s numbers because much of this year’s growth can be attributed to two schools operated by local philanthropist Kiran C. Patel that gained 432 students.

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Parents, administrators and students gather for a ribbon-cutting on July 25, 2022, at Patel Elementary, a charter school in Thonotosassa.
Parents, administrators and students gather for a ribbon-cutting on July 25, 2022, at Patel Elementary, a charter school in Thonotosassa. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times ]

“You know they’re going to have a good program,” Combs said. “I feel like they’re home-grown and not a for-profit charter.”

Combs said she is also optimistic about new offerings in Hillsborough district schools, including a Montessori program at Essrig Elementary and a districtwide expansion of the pre-college Advanced International Certificate of Education classes, known as AICE.

“I think that as more parents becoming engaged and involved, a lot of them will come back to the public schools,” Combs said.

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