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Census numbers don't surprise Hernando schools

District officials are already trying to build more schools and accommodate a growing number of Hispanic students.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 2001

District officials are already trying to build more schools and accommodate a growing number of Hispanic students.

Hernando County's youth population is more ethnically diverse than it was a decade ago, and it accounts for a slightly larger chunk of the county's population than in 1990, new census numbers show.

But in a place that has built a reputation as a retirement community, the 24,726 children in Hernando County remain a minority unto themselves. Kids -- people 17 or younger -- account for 18.9 percent of Hernando County's population, up from 18.5 percent in 1990.

For schools, the reality behind the census numbers will influence where schools are built and where special programs are needed for kids who speak languages other than English.

In addition, census data are directly tied to politics. School Board members will review the census numbers to see whether they need to draw a new voting map that better reflects population shifts.

After a quick first glance, district officials said they were not surprised by the 2000 census data. After all, they take a student head count each day.

The census shows growth on the county's west side and particularly heavy growth in the population of children who live in the area between U.S. 19 and the Suncoast Parkway.

But schools didn't need the census to reveal that high schools have been crowded for years and that things are starting to get tight in elementary schools.

Construction is due to begin in May on a high school that is intended to serve as a pressure valve for crowding when it opens in 2003. Meanwhile, district officials are still searching for west side property that could be home to an elementary school.

"The (census) numbers I've seen seem to indicate that we are on track," Superintendent John Sanders said. "I don't think there is anything new there that we haven't been talking about."

Likewise, the school system has been tracking the growth of the Hispanic student population.

For the past 10 years, the county's schools have offered a program known as ESOL (English Speakers of Other Languages). It helps kids whose primary tongue is another language to grow comfortable with English.

Deltona and Spring Hill elementaries -- two schools with the highest Hispanic populations in the county -- each have a full-time ESOL teacher. The rest of the schools have part-time ESOL teachers.

However, the number of kids in ESOL classes has declined in recent years. Diane Dannemiller, who supervises ESOL, said that indicates that more of the county's Hispanic students have grown up speaking English and do not need the program.

In fact, the school district says that more than 96 percent of the Hispanic children in county schools were born in the United States. Of the rest, most came from Puerto Rico.

Spring Hill Elementary, with about 30 Hispanic students, employs several bilingual staff members.

Deltona, meanwhile, has developed a dual-language program in which four teachers instruct kids using English and Spanish. In some cases, the Deltona program has helped Hispanic children who were born in America and who speak little of their grandparents' native language to bridge the generation gap.

For schools, what may be most telling about the 2000 Census data is what the numbers say about how the district's staff reflects -- and serves -- the community at large.

Current enrollment figures show that more than 6.3 percent of the county's student body is Hispanic. Yet only 3.8 percent of the district's teaching force is Hispanic. That disparity could widen because the census showed that, among children, Hispanics are the county's fastest-growing segment of the youth population.

Overall, the new census data and local school enrollment figures reflect dramatic growth in Hernando County's youth population during the 1990s.

Census figures show that the youth population grew slightly faster than the adult population.

School enrollment stood at 12,796 in the 1990-91 school year. Today, the district has 17,684 students.

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