SEBRING — Highlands County schools opened to the biggest first-day increase in student enrollment in eight years with 150 more students showing up Wednesday at district schools compared to last year’s opening day.
After an overall increase of 282 students in the 2006-07 school year, the district’s enrollment declined in each of the next five years until enrollment increased by 77 in 2012-13 and 29 in 2013-14. Those numbers were based on the October and February enrollment survey weeks.
Though Wednesday’s first-day enrollment of 11,760 is not part of the state survey count, it represents a significant increase for the district, which receives state funding based on the student count in the enrollment survey weeks.
The district’s tentative 2014-15 budget shows a projected annual decrease of seven students.
Superintendent Wally Cox said it was a smooth opening according to the reports he has received from the personnel he assigned to help out at the schools.
The enrollment projection of a decrease of seven students was based on a new system and they wanted to be conservative, Cox said. He had believed that the enrollment would increase by about 75 students so he was a little surprised by the increase of 150 students.
But, he is waiting to compare the fifth-day enrollment numbers for a truer indiction of enrollment growth, Cox said. Students will be dropped from the enrollment count if they don’t show up at school by the fifth day.
It was the eighth opening day for Kindergarten Learning Center, which opened in August 2007.
Around 7 a.m., Teri Gonsalves was at the head of the lineup of parents and students with her son, John Chisholm.
Sporting a Batman T-shirt, a Mario Brothers backpack and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles metal lunch/snack box, John appeared bright and ready for his first day of school.
“What are you going to learn today?,” his mom asked.
“To be good,” he said.
“Didn’t you already learn that at home?”
John shook his head side to side to indicate “no.”
Gonsalves said she was ready for the first day.
“I can thank VPK [voluntary prekindergarten] for that,” she said.
Teacher Linda Freeland made final preparations in her classroom prior to the arrival of her students.
It’s her 41st year teaching kindergarten.
“I just love kindergartners,” she said. “It’s like starting out with a blank slate and by the end of the year they can read, they can write and do math and you think ‘yeah, we made lots of good progress.’
“They learn fast; they are anxious to learn and they are enthusiastic and they have a smile and I like that.”
Queeanna Thomas accompanied her daughter, Arniyah Ford, into Freeland’s class.
Thomas said, “Miss Freeland is the best teacher ever; she is very creative.”
Thomas was speaking from experience because Freeland was her kindergarten teacher.
Freeland said she has about four or five kids in her class that are children of her former students. District office administrator Andrew Lethbridge, who is a former principal of the school, helped out at the front of the school at the bus loop.
The school’s parking lot cannot accommodate all the parents who park and walk their children to class on the first day so they are directed to park on the empty grass lots just north of the school.
Lethbridge explained to a parent, “first days are always like this.”
The parent replied, “there is no way I could do this every day.”
One student ended up at the wrong school.
While Angela Garcia was dropping off her son, Christopher, at the Kindergarten Learning Center she noticed a friend’s third-grader who was supposed to be at Fred Wild Elementary School.
After departing from her bus at Fred Wild, the third-grader got into the wrong line, the lineup of students who were taking the shuttle bus to the Kindergarten Learning Center. The school bus took the child back to Fred Wild Elementary.
School Board Member Jan Shoop said things went “very smooth” at Sebring High considering the number of students. Sebring High’s first day enrollment was 1,617.
She handed out schedules to the students and then helped with the attendance.
The first day student count was down at only four of the district’s 17 schools — Lake Placid, Park and Sun ’n Lake elementary schools and Avon Park Middle.
Woodlawn Elementary opened last year and this year with 528 students.
The big gainers with their increase from last year’s first day of school are: Sebring Middle, 46; Kindergarten Learning Center, 32; Avon Park High, 27; Fred Wild Elementary, 25 and Sebring High, 24.