1. The Education Gradebook

Hillsborough school growth numbers show crowding in some areas, empty seats in others

Published Sep. 12, 2016

On the 20th day of this school year, a new charter school in Riverview was bustling with 754 students.

SouthShore Charter Academy, the fourth Hillsborough County school managed by the for-profit Charter Schools USA, brought the number of charter students in the district up to 17,939 this school year.

But SouthShore's success doesn't just illustrate the popularity of state-funded, privately managed schools.

It also reveals a growing disparity: Urban schools are bleeding students while there is a growing need for schools to serve the suburbs of Citrus Park, New Tampa and Ruskin.

Complicating that problem is that school district officials don't know how many of those suburban students will rely on public schools and how many will opt for charters.

This year's numbers point to more crowded conditions at Lowry Elementary, which showed a net increase of 97 students compared with the 20th day of the 2015-16 school year; Martinez Middle, which gained 81 students; and Lennard High, where enrollment grew by 259 students as the Ruskin area continued to be a hot spot for growth.

The district's 212,844 students — 1,991 more than on last year's 20th day — might not even include every student. Because state law allows school to begin in early August, lessons started this year at a time when some families were still away on vacation.

But the detailed enrollment numbers also show some schools lost students — a lot of them.

Edison Elementary in East Tampa, one of the district's seven high-needs Elevate schools, lost 59 students and is down to 446.

The district has 11 elementary schools with less than 400 students, and another four — DeSoto, in Ybor City; Dunbar, in West Tampa; and USF/Patel and MOSI Partnership, in the University of South Tampa area — with fewer than 300.

At the other end of the scale is Stowers, a FishHawk Ranch school with 1,071 students; and Sessums, a Riverview school with 1,115.

Urban middle schools, similarly, are struggling to fill seats.

In the Sulphur Springs area, Sligh — also considered an Elevate school — lost 78 students last year and now has 509. Van Buren lost 39, and now has 418. New Springs, a charter school on nearby Busch Boulevard, gained 90 students and now has 422.

School Board members have mused that it might be time to redraw boundary lines to fill some of the empty schools and relieve the more crowded ones.

Among other issues, keeping a school running at a half to a third empty is an inefficient use of resources.

But board members and administrators have been reluctant to disrupt communities by displacing children. Backlash invariably ensues — as in FishHawk, where the district drew up a second boundary plan for Stowers to satisfy parent concerns about the first one.

Neither plan pleased everyone, and the school is now operating over capacity.

District leaders are also uncertain about population growth, housing construction and the long-term impact of the charter movement, which locally accounts for 8.4 percent of students.

The school board recently approved a $98,000 consultant study that will help the district project population and school needs.

"Quite frankly, we don't have a good handle on the information as it comes in," Lorraine Duffy Suarez, the district's general manager of growth management and planning, said at Tuesday's board meeting.

"This will give us that opportunity to look forward and have more accuracy as to where growth is coming, what rate it's coming and how many students are coming from households."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or Follow @marlenesokol