Sitting at a table in the fourth grade learning village at Lakewood Ranch Preparatory Academy, no one would have known Lelia Rodriguez, Catalina Poole, Emily Topping and Molly Jae all went to different elementary schools last school year.
All dressed in their matching green Lakewood Ranch Preparatory Academy polo shirts, they were working collaboratively on an assignment to draw an aquarium.
The new K-12 charter school has 740 students enrolled who previously attended schools including Robert E. Willis, B.D. Gullett, Gilbert W. McNeal and Freedom elementary schools as well as Dr. Mona Jain and R. Dan Nolan middle schools.
Many of the freshmen at the charter school’s upper school would have attended Lakewood Ranch High School.
All of these schools, except for Lakewood Ranch High School, saw a decrease in enrollment as of Aug. 30 compared to May of last school year.
Don Sauer, the director of the Office of Student Demographics, Projects and Assignment for the School District of Manatee County, said although Lakewood Ranch Preparatory Academy pulled dozens of students from surrounding traditional schools, the opening of the charter school is not the only reason for the drop in enrollment at many schools.
But it is one reason.
“With the growth that’s still happening here in Manatee County, there’s definitely enough kids to go around,” Sauer said. “(Lakewood Ranch Preparatory opening) certainly didn’t hurt the district.”
Even so, Sauer said the new charter didn't change the district as a whole, either.
Sauer said the school district’s total enrollment, which includes charter schools, is about 100 students shy of its projection of 51,769 students.
Sauer said another factor that has dropped enrollment at many of the district's elementary schools is the number of kindergartners. He said the school district as a whole has about 285 fewer kindergartners compared to last year.
At Gullett Elementary alone, the school has 141 fewer kindergartners when the school has had close to 200 kindergartners coming in each year for the past few years.
Sauer said the district’s rezoning of elementary schools in 2019 has contributed to the changes in enrollment.
At the middle school level, Lakewood Ranch Preparatory Academy has only accepted sixth graders this school year. Dr. Mona Jain Middle School, which saw a drop of 81 students in enrollment compared to last school year, did see many students transfer to the new charter, although the district didn't have exact numbers.
Sauer said he couldn't attribute Mona Jain's drop in enrollment to the charter.
“We had closed Mona Jain to (school) choice and hardship, so I think that had more to do with it than anything,” he said.
With the continuous growth in East County, Sauer said Lakewood Ranch High remains above capacity with 2,428 students enrolled this year, which is 77 more than last year.
About 100 of Lakewood Ranch Prep’s 740 students came from out of state.
Bradley Warren, the principal of the lower school, and Cheryl Cendan, the principal of the upper school, weren’t surprised to see so many families from out of state want to enroll in their school because they knew they had spread the word through community meetings and social media.
Warren said it was great to see how many people chose the area because of great schools and "great schools of choice."
Many Lakewood Ranch Prep parents said one of their reasons for choosing the charter was overcrowding in Lakewood Ranch-area schools.
Warren said overcrowding will not be a concern for the charter school because it is written in the school’s charter that enrollment cannot exceed 740 students in its first year and 1,965 students when the school has all K-12 students on campus four years from now.
“We can’t bring in portables,” Warren said. “We can’t change our mind and say let’s put a second story on the school. To do that, we’d have to go back to Manatee County and amend the charter. We have no plans to do that because one of the things our parents love is they wanted a smaller setting.”
Bringing together students and teachers from other schools comes with its benefits and challenges.
Warren said many students made instant connections with classmates because they recognized each other from their previous schools or were already friends.
But no matter what school they previously attended, each student became the “new kid” because they are part of the school’s inception.
“Starting a new school can be a daunting task for some kids,” Warren said. “But we can say everybody’s new here. All the teachers are new here. All the students are new here. We’re all doing this together. I think that kind of quickly brings a sense of community together.”
Warren said having learning villages has proved beneficial as well because students develop relationships with more students and more teachers.
“There’s a greater chance you can make some connections with kids who might share your interests,” he said.
Coming from different schools, Warren said teachers have had the opportunity to share their experiences and collaborate on how to best bring different teaching methods together to have success. He said teachers can better play to their strengths and depend on each other more than feeling siloed in their own classrooms.
“Now they get to come together and take the best of both worlds,” Warren said. “It’s that synergy of here’s what I liked about my old school but here’s what could make it better. Most teachers in traditional schools are isolated, and now you have the power of collaboration but also that’s different. It used to be ‘my’ world, and now it’s ‘our’ world.
Warren said he told teachers to check their ego at the door because they were going to be surrounded by experts who needed to combine their philosophies to do what will be best for the students.
For the high school freshmen, Cendan said students didn’t have a difficult time adjusting to the new school because they had several opportunities to meet through community meetings. The parents also set up freshmen social events before school started.
“Our parents — in the high school in particular — have been exceptional at interacting with each other,” Cendan said. “We have a high school committee, and those parents had been meeting way before the kids even got here. They were setting up just what they wanted the high school to look like and some of the activities for the kids.”
As a K-12 school, Warren and Cendan said they are better able to create a school community that encourages all students to support each other no matter the age. For example, high school students will come on campus earlier in the morning to help walk the younger students from their cars to their learning villages.
“It started the first day of school and it has just grown,” Cendan said about the high school students helping the young students. “They love it. It has blossomed into this beautiful program.”