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  1. The Education Gradebook

Hillsborough County's schools growing, but not as fast as charters

Published Sep. 23, 2014

TAMPA — Charters are the big winners again this year as families continue to move into Hillsborough County and many opt for the tax-funded but independently operated public schools.

Of the net growth of 4,736 students, about one-third were in charters. Their 12 percent growth rate was five times that of the district as a whole, which now serves 206,099 children.

Nearly 700 students signed up for five new charter schools. In southeast Hillsborough's district-run schools, there was a similar surge in elementary school enrollment, with 632 more students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. A new elementary school, Thompson, opened in Ruskin to accommodate the growth, and at least two more are on the horizon.

The charter numbers show that even controversies did not send students back to the district schools. Kid's Community College's elementary and middle schools, combined, saw increased enrollment, despite an ongoing disagreement with the district about how much of a contract extension they can receive.

There was far more publicity about three schools managed by Charter Schools USA of Fort Lauderdale. Unable to get answers to questions about who controlled the schools, superintendent MaryEllen Elia put them on notice that the district might end their contracts. The two sides are negotiating through lawyers, and Elia has committed to keeping the schools open at least through June.

Despite those events, all three K-8 schools — Henderson Hammock, Woodmont and Winthrop — saw growth.

"Parents are more interested in the results they see in their children's education, and I think that the growth we've seen is parents seeing success," said Colleen Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the charter operator.

"The other stuff you see in the media is all about the adults. What happens at the school is all about the students, and that's what's important to the parents."

If a group representing MacDill Air Force Base has its way, Charter Schools USA will manage a fourth school at the base to serve military families. A recommendation is expected next week in advance of the Sept. 30 School Board meeting.

In the district's more than 200 traditional schools, there was continued growth in the suburbs and a slight decrease in parts of central Tampa and the innermost suburbs east of the city.

But there were sharp variations from school to school, sometimes in the same neighborhood.

Just Elementary, which borders North Boulevard Homes, lost 129 students, while nearby Stewart Middle gained 86.

Liberty Middle School in Tampa Palms gained 146 students. Smith Middle in Citrus Park lost 103.

McLane Middle School in Brandon lost 196 students. But some high schools showed gains that were almost as impressive: Newsome High School in the FishHawk Ranch area grew by 108, Durant High in Plant City gained 119 students and Leto High, which serves Town 'N Country, grew by 162 students.

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Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.

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