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    Schools swell as student count rises

    Largo High still has breathing room, while Dunedin needed two portable classrooms.

    By LORRI HELFAND, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 2, 2002


    Extra students at Dunedin High School this year were not a complete surprise to principal Mildred Reed. She got a clue during the busy summer registration period.

    But by the beginning of school, Dunedin High had 1,965 students, 109 more than projected and 150 more than last year.

    For Reed, the additional students have been a bit of a crunch.

    But for Largo High School principal Barbara Thornton, whose school also exceeded district projections, the extra 156 students there are a welcome surprise.

    It all boils down to space. If you consider building capacity, Dunedin High was at capacity last year. Largo High, which has about 2,017 students could handle a couple hundred more, according to Thornton.

    "We're a little tight, but we're moving forward. We're trying to do the best that we can," Reed said.

    After the 10-day count -- an official count every year that tells how many students are in school -- Reed asked the district for two portable classrooms, which she received. Reed needed the extra space, and she wanted to ease the pressure on nine of her teachers who are floating every period.

    Reed also requested additional teachers units during the summer. She received 2.2 units, which allowed her to hire two new teachers based on school population. After the count, she asked for another exceptional education teacher and permission to offer a couple more sections of general education classes. She got the teacher, but not the additional sections.

    At Largo High, Thornton said the number of students above what had been predicted is higher than ever before. Last year, Largo High had only 23 more than expected.

    During the summer, "we get a good feel for how many students would be coming in the door, but you never really know until they arrive. You never can get an accurate number until the students walk in the door," Thornton said.

    Additional students are great, but she wouldn't mind additional educators.

    "This is a good number for us," she said. "We'd probably be happy if we could get one or two more teachers. But we're realistic," said Thornton citing budget constraints.

    The count also revealed that two north county schools may have more African-American students than rules allow. At schools north of Ulmerton Road, no more than 25 percent of the school population may be black. The figure is 42 percent in south Pinellas schools.

    North Ward and Sandy Lane, exceeded the north county figure with a African-American student population of about 29 percent.

    But no students will be removed from their schools to meet the ratios this year, according to Kathy Walker, student assignment director. Instead, the figures will be used to set counts and maintain ratios for next year. The caps on African-American students will remain in place through the 2006-2007 school year.

    "It's very disruptive to move large numbers of kids," said Walker. "We're truly in a wait-and-see mode."

    The district may have a bit more control over projections and race ratios with school choice, said Kathy Walker, student assignment director.

    This year, most students were assigned to specific schools according to their home address. But next year, the capacity at each school will be set based on available space and parental responses to the district's declaration of intent. After students apply to attend their top choices in their attendance area, a computer will process their choices.

    But even with the heads up that the choice plan provides, there are circumstances beyond human control, Walker said.

    There will always be people registering late, homeschool kids with dual enrollment and private school students who want to attend public school.

    If there was a magic recipe to safeguard schools from losing or gaining students, Walker said, "we would would have patented that formula long ago."

    A 20-day count, considered a better barometer of school numbers, will be conducted this week.

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