How the school district is managing explosive St. Johns County growth

Superintendent discusses future schools and class sizes

Drive through St. Johns County and you can't miss the sprawling new developments: Nocatee, Beach Walk, River Town.

Families are moving to the school district, which is ranked among the best in the state, in record numbers compared to districts of similar size.

School Superintendent Tim Forson said had it not been for the half-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2015, the district would be unable to keep up with the growth -- which shows no signs of slowing down.

"We expect to be in the same mode of growth for at least the next 10 to 15 years," Forson said. He said that translates into 1,500 to 2,000 more students every year.

Most of these families have young, elementary-aged students. The district opened two elementary schools last school year -- Palm Valley Academy and Freedom Crossing -- to try to keep up with the demand for more classrooms. But Palm Valley Academy, located near the sprawling Nocatee area in the eastern part of the county, has already outgrown itself.

"Already we are adding eight portable classrooms to that new school. So by the time it is at capacity, K-8, it will be considerably overcapacity in reality. We will have more students than we can fit," Forson said.

Forson said the district will need to add another elementary or middle school in the Nocatee area. Palm Valley will expand to welcome 8th graders next school year, as will Freedom Crossing.

With younger students advancing each year, Forson said the greatest need right now is for another high school.

Nease, Bartram Trail and Creekside high schools are bursting at the seams. It's why he and the school board have pushed to purchase the land next to Mill Creek Academy off International Golf Parkway to build a new high school.

"So it will relieve Nease, but is adjacent to Bartram Trail and has close proximity to Creekside. So although that rezoning has really not been designated at this point, we certainly contemplate that it will bring relief to Nease and Bartram Trail," Forson explained.

He said it will be at least two years before a new high school is ready to open. While Forson said more high schools are needed, they are expensive to build -- costing $60 million to $80 million.

What few people realize is that the district cannot build schools based on projected enrollment numbers, which means that even if it expects 1,500 to 2,000 more school-aged children will be moving next year to St. Johns County, it has to wait until those students are enrolled before it can begin to manage where they will learn.

The county receives funding from four sources: 

  • A portion of your property taxes
  • The half-cent sales tax
  • A portion of county impact fees
  • A fee charged to developers who build new housing communities

With so many students and not enough classrooms, some are concerned about classroom sizes. Forson said despite the growth, the district is bound by the law.

"We live in a state that has a class-size amendment, so no matter how big the school is -- 1,000 students or 3,000 students -- the class size is going to be consistent. We are very strict and very consistent about hiring teachers for the number of students that are in that school," Forson said. 

Florida law dictates teacher to student ratio: 1 teacher per 18 students among kindergarten through third grades. One teacher to 22 students for middle school students and one teacher per 25 students in high school. This is mandated in core classes like science, math and English.  

Forson said elective classes, however, will often have many more students than that ratio, especially in high school. Since there are not enough classrooms for all the students at some of the schools, co-teaching is another method used by the district to maintain the class size requirements as dictated by the law.

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