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Parents have more school choice options in Manatee County

More schools in the Lakewood Ranch area are open to school choice as enrollment at elementary and middle schools decreases.

Braden River High School seniors Nathan Zapote and Grace Pino are happy to be at the school, which is open for school choice in the 2023-2024 school year.
Braden River High School seniors Nathan Zapote and Grace Pino are happy to be at the school, which is open for school choice in the 2023-2024 school year.
Photo by Liz Ramos
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Families will have more schools to choose from during the School District of Manatee County’s school choice period for the 2023-2024 school year. 

In Manatee County, only five elementary schools, one middle school and two high schools are closed to school choice. 

In the 2022-2023 school year, 12 elementary schools, four middle schools and two high schools were closed to school choice in the county. 

Several elementary and middle schools saw a decrease in enrollment compared to last year, resulting in more schools being open to school choice.

The School District of Manatee County is accepting applications for school choice now through Dec. 31. 

Beckett Laughlin, a third grader at Robert E. Willis Elementary School, looks for microorganisms in a microscope. Willis Elementary is open for school choice after being closed for the 2022-2023 school year.
Photo by Liz Ramos

Don Sauer, the director of the School District of Manatee County’s Office of Student Demographics, said although Manatee County has seen tremendous growth even during the pandemic, especially in the greater Lakewood Ranch area, not all people who have moved to the county have school-age children. 

With inflation and higher interest rates, the growth in Manatee County as a whole has slowed, impacting the number of students enrolling in district schools. 

Sauer said when the School District of Manatee County went through redistricting of elementary and middle schools in 2019 with the new boundaries being put in place for the 2020-2021 school year, it allowed for the decrease in enrollment at certain schools. 

The large overall enrollment of fifth graders in some schools have since moved onto middle school, which also factored into several elementary schools seeing fewer enrolled students in this school year. 

“Because we redistricted, you didn’t get as many kindergartners now in the second year,” Sauer said. “Those kindergartners are now first graders so you have smaller classes on the other end. That helps it as well.”

Another reason for the decrease in enrollment is the opening of a new charter school in Lakewood Ranch and the expansion of another charter school in Parrish.

Lakewood Ranch Preparatory Academy opened on White Eagle Boulevard in August with 740 students in kindergarten through sixth grade and ninth grade. 

In the northern part of the county, Sauer said Parrish Charter Academy also added sixth grade to its school with the eventual goal of becoming a K-8 school. 

“Some of the students that would normally transition into Buffalo Creek (Middle School) stayed at Parrish Charter and went into sixth grade,” Sauer said. 

As those charter schools continue to add to their enrollment, Sauer said traditional schools will continue to see a decrease in enrollment. 

Amya Dunbar, a senior at Braden River High School, says she loves the teachers at the school. Braden River High is open to school choice for the 2023-2024 school year.
Photo by Liz Ramos

Sauer said more families are becoming aware of the state’s Family Empowerment Scholarship, which was expanded in 2021. The program now includes the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options, which is based on family income, and the McKay Scholarship, which provides scholarships for families of students with disabilities.

The Family Empowerment Scholarship for Educational Options provides the option for students to attend a participating private school, which would open space at their existing schools.

The McKay Scholarship, which now falls under the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities, gives families an opportunity to enroll students in another public school that is not their zoned school or they can receive a personal education savings account to use toward a private school, online learning programs, private tutoring, community college costs, higher education expenses and more. 

“What’s happening with Family Empowerment is that more people are becoming aware of it,” Sauer said. “It’s parents choosing options. As a district, we want to offer as many options as we can. The state is offering this one.”

While several elementary and middle schools saw a decrease in enrollment this year compared to last year, each of the district’s seven high schools saw an increase in enrollment this year. 

“When we were really growing and we built those elementary and middle schools, those kids are now high school aged kids,” Sauer said. “They’re going through the system.”

Each of the high schools is open to school choice except Lakewood Ranch High School and Parrish Community High School. 

Lakewood Ranch High is 132% over its capacity of 1,818 students while Parrish Community is at 100% capacity with 2,042 students enrolled. Parrish Community’s capacity is 2,043 students.

“Those two areas are growing the most now,” Sauer said. 

Sauer said as Lakewood Ranch Preparatory Academy adds its upper school next year, Lakewood Ranch High School could see fewer students enrolled. 

“I can follow that and start to develop trends to see how many students are actually in that attendance zone that go to them so we can start to project out when they add 11th and 12th grade,” Sauer said. “In the next year or two, that could play into whether Lakewood Ranch is going to be open for choice.”

Both Lakewood Ranch and Parrish Community high schools are having additions constructed on their campuses that will increase their capacities. 

The completion of additions at Braden River Middle and Gene Witt and Willis elementary schools in the past three years has increased capacity at those schools, allowing them to move from being closed for school choice to open. 

Daylan Weerappulige, a second grader at Braden River Elementary School, works on an assignment.
Photo by Liz Ramos

Although a majority of schools are open for school choice, Sauer said some schools might have a limited number of seats available. For example, Robert E. Willis Elementary School sits at 89% capacity, which is just under the 90% capacity cutoff to closing elementary schools to school choice. The school was closed to choice last year. 

“The district worked very hard to try to open every school for choice,” Sauer said. “We want to make sure everybody in every area gets a chance to have a choice and have students be able to choose it. Sometimes it might only be 20 seats, but we do want to make sure that’s offered to families.”

Sauer said priority is given to children of district employees, active-duty military, foster care, siblings within the same school and those in court-ordered custody arrangements. 



Liz Ramos

Liz Ramos covers education and community for East County. Before moving to Florida, Liz was an education reporter for the Lynchburg News & Advance in Virginia for two years after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism.

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