ST. PETERSBURG — Enrollment in Pinellas County’s public schools is increasing for the first time in a decade, school officials said.
The school district’s 10-day enrollment count, finalized Tuesday , shows 101,512 students enrolled in elementary, middle and high schools, 164 more than last school year.
It’s the first year-over-year increase since the 2003-04 school year, said Bill Lawrence, the director of student assignment.
Enrollment has been declining steadily as the county struggled to find space for development, and private and charter schools began saturating the area with highly specialized programs.
Charter school enrollment increased 2.9 percent to 6,062 students this school year from 5,891 a year ago, although that pales in comparison to the 16.5 percent increase the previous school year.
Perhaps the biggest force behind the changing trend is Pinellas schools have become much more competitive this year, offering parents more choice programs and opening two new elementary schools for the first time in about 10 years.
“We’ve been very aggressive in creating more parental choice and magnet programs, and we’ve attracted a lot of students that weren’t attending public schools before because they’re highly engaging,” Lawrence said. “We have students working on their own iPads in our technology schools and building devices in East Lake’s new engineering middle school. These are really cool programs.”
However, the increases don’t spread across all grade levels.
Ninth grade saw the largest enrollment districtwide with 8,563 students, up from 7,918 students last school year, an 8.1 percent increase. The largest decrease was in 11th grade, which saw a 6.5 percent drop, from 8,585 in 2013-14 to 8,026 this school year. Students are allowed to drop out of high school with parental consent at 16 years old, which for most comes between their sophomore and junior year.
Kindergarten saw a 4 percent drop of 305 students, and first grade saw a 2.3 percent drop of 184 students. In second grade, an additional 471 students caused a 6.2 percent increase, and in third grade, an extra 194 students caused a 2.5 percent increase.
Overall, elementary school enrollment increased by 297 students, or 0.6 percent, middle school enrollment decreased by 371 students, or 1.6 percent, and high school enrollment increased by 238 students, or 0.7 percent.
Palm Harbor University High has the most students, with 2,543.
Although the school district anticipated a slight increase — the projected enrollment was for 67 students more — there are a number of factors, such as birth rates and the local economy, that result in the number of students in public classrooms. More students means more state funding, and the ability to add programs such as the four International Baccalaureate middle school programs expected to open next school year, Lawrence said.
The school district has lived through years such as 2006 and 2007 where it has lost thousands of students, and has learned to be “very, very careful” with school staffing and spending, he said.
“We’re seeing more redevelopment, particularly more residential apartment buildings go up where 55 and older mobile home parks used to be, and we’re going to keep doing more of the same to bring in kids,” Lawrence said. “It’s our hope that this trend is swinging back up, and we can continue matching more kids’ talents, interests and abilities to our programs.”