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Where are all the students?

Enrollment in schools across the state has suddenly hit the brakes - or even reversed - and no one is exactly sure why.

By MELANIE AVE
Published August 26, 2006


Educators across Florida are scratching their heads over a new phenomenon: Far fewer students than expected are showing up for school.

After more than a decade of rapid growth, school enrollment slowed last year. Educators thought the dip was an aberration, but early indications show enrollment growth has slowed again this year, even in traditionally high-growth areas of the state.

Enrollment is down by thousands of students in Miami-Dade, Duval and Broward counties. Climbing enrollments that distinguished other districts, like Orange, Manatee and Palm Beach, have slowed. Fast-growing Hillsborough, which expected about 5,000 new students this year, now anticipates only 2,500.

Pinellas' total enrollment was 109,625 students on the 10th day of classes this week - a drop of 1,724 students from last year.

Pinellas is the most developed county in Florida, so no one was expecting enrollment to go up. But the decline was nearly twice what the district expected. The decreases were less pronounced in mid county, which has more affordable homes for young families.

"We can only speculate as to why we're experiencing a slight enrollment decline," said Andrea Zahn, Pinellas schools spokeswoman. "We can't pinpoint why."

Many school officials blame rising home prices, skyrocketing homeowners insurance, nagging hurricane fear and declining immigration.

The state is also trying to figure out what's going on.

The Legislature's Office of Economic and Demographic Research is awaiting results from a survey of Florida's 67 school districts. Officials want to analyze last year's slower-than-expected enrollment growth statewide and to gauge if this year will be a repeat.

Since 1989, state enrollment has grown an average of 51,000 students annually. But last year, regular enrollment grew by only about 30,000 children - the lowest amount in five years and half what was expected.

State statistician Carolyn DuBard said the survey will not say definitively what is happening but should give budget forecasters some clues on which to base a hypothesis.

"It may be last year was a perfect storm kind of thing," she said. "It's very likely there was some effect from the hurricanes. That would be a short-term effect and the state would rebound from that as long as we don't have year after year of hurricanes."

Based on birth statistics, the number of public school students is expected to grow by 6 percent by 2010.

Lawmakers appropriated enough money for 50,000 new students this year.

But if Hillsborough is an example of things to come, enrollment growth may never reach that high.

While Hillsborough expected 5,000 more kids this year, it had only 1,100 by the first week of school.

William Person, who oversees Hillsborough's student enrollment, said it's too soon to say exactly why the numbers are off, but he has some theories.

"Generally speaking, the housing market has cooled," he said.

"You've seen increases in property values in what was moderate housing," he said. "Now the average home is $250,000. For many families who move into this area, to purchase a single family home that is $200,000 to $250,000 is prohibitive."

DuBard said her analysis of last year's enrollment clearly showed between 5,000 and 10,000 fewer children arriving from other states.

The state's largest district, Miami-Dade, has been sliding for several years, mostly because of a decrease in immigrant enrollment, said district spokesman John Schuster.

"It's been a gradual, steady decline," he said.

In nearby Palm Beach County, enrollment grew by several thousand students in recent years, then slowed to a crawl last year. The district expected 5,000 new students but ended up with only 400.

First-day enrollment this year was 171,000 but the forecast is for only 173,000 for the entire year.

"We expect a flat enrollment," said Nat Harrington, Palm Beach schools spokesman. "We may get a couple hundred students more - hundreds not thousands."

While fewer students means fewer dollars for school districts, Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, said a slowdown in enrollment growth would give districts a chance to catch up with crippling growth.

"If it slows it would help us with our budget," he said. "It will help with hiring of teachers. It will help with the class-size amendment.

"I think a slowing down would be more beneficial than detrimental."

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at mave@sptimes.com or 727 893-8813.