Palm Beach County school enrollment remains thousands short of pre-pandemic high

Palm Beach Post | By Sonja Isger | October 28, 2021

Despite a return to full in-person learning, but amid a mask-mandate, Palm Beach County’s public school enrollment remains at least 6,300 short of the high-mark set pre-pandemic.

The true hit came in the fall of 2020, when thousands of students first fell off the district rolls.

But another year in the rearview appears to have done little to reclaim lost ground, according to a headcount taken for the state this month.

In fact, when counting only the district’s traditional elementary, middle and high schools, including preschoolers, enrollment fell by 518 students to 166,079.

The district’s virtual school programs, however, grew to 700 from 274 the year before. And charter schools, which are run with public dollars, gained more than 700 students, to reach a total enrollment of 22,235.

All told, the district’s full enrollment, including charters, rose to 191,798, a gain of 644 over the prior year but still 6,335 short of the historic peak in the fall of 2019.   

School district anticipated a financial hit from dropping enrollment

The state headcount is taken every October and February in order to pull down state money tied to each student. Such a dramatic plunge could’ve resulted in cuts of tens of millions of dollars in Palm Beach County, but those losses were mitigated in several ways, said Heather Frederick, the district’s chief financial officer.

To begin with, the district’s finance department was more flexible with its allocations for school staffing over the past two years, Frederick said.

“Normally we’ll align our staffing by enrollment, and we hold a pretty tight line,” Frederick said.

But last year, the department budgeted in the middle ground, cutting fewer positions than past practice would’ve demanded. They took another half step down in staffing this fall.

“This stepped down approach helps schools get used to new staffing levels,” Frederick said. It also keeps an eye to the future. “Our expectation is for enrollment to increase. … If students return, we want staffing to meet the needs of those students,” she said. 

The district has been able to afford this half step approach thanks to a decision by the state Department of Education to allot money based on pre-pandemic enrollments all of last year. Additionally, the district is benefitting from an infusion of cash from the federal COVID relief package for education.

The federal money comes with the demand that districts across the country account for students who appeared to have gone AWOL by the thousands — part of the largest national decline in enrollment in more than 20 years.

In Palm Beach County, that meant tracking down more than 4,800 students, Frederick said. So far, those efforts have accounted for all but 1,478, according to Frederick’s office. 

The biggest contingent — more than 1,000 — enrolled in another Florida district. Some 671 had reached age 16, when school attendance is no longer required; 575 were truant; 387 re-enrolled in the county’s public schools; 343 enrolled out of state; 283 were found at private schools; and another 100 enrolled in home school, the district reported.

Roughly 7,800 students are registered to home school in Palm Beach County. The alternative has risen in popularity, with 28% more students declaring they will be home schooled this fall compared with the fall of 2019, reports Cheryl Bottini, in the district’s Home Education Office.

Defection to local private schools is more difficult to track, though throughout the pandemic, principals said they were aware of parents making those moves.

Biggest gains in elementary schools

Broken down by school levels, student rolls grew most at the elementary level, with kindergarten seeing the largest increase of any grade. That could be a boomerang effect after widespread reports of parents delaying their children’s entry into kindergarten in 2020, when the year began virtually and later split into in-person and live-streaming remote lessons weeks later. (Nationally, the number of preschool and kindergarten students decreased by 13% last year, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.)

Meanwhile, in Palm Beach County the largest dip in enrollment by grade also happened in elementaries. Fourth grade saw a dip to 11,848 from 12,012 the prior year.

High school enrollment was a mixed bag across 23 campuses. Eight schools lost anywhere from a handful of students to more than 100, while 15 schools reported gains from one student to more than 100. 

John I. Leonard High gained 30 students and retains the title of the largest school in the district with nearly 3,580 students. 

Forest Hill High saw 128 fewer students but remains the most crowded campus in the district with more than 2,400 students on a campus built for just over 1,800. 

The district’s 32 middle schools took the hardest hit enrollment-wise. Only five saw enrollment gains. The math for middle school has become somewhat complicated with the progressive opening — a new grade each year — of three of the district’s six K-8 campuses. More than 320 middle schoolers migrated to those new opportunities, according to the district.

The district’s demographers had hoped to account for pandemic losses and anemic growth in their forecast. This year those projections also fell short of the picture painted by the Oct. 14 count, albeit by only about 1%. Charter schools also fared slightly better than district experts anticipated, though again, the numbers were off by less than 2%.  

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