Family Focus

Destination Jacksonville: Population growth impacting schools

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The River City has become a destination over the years for new residents. But that growth has come with growing pains, especially in education.

According to the 2020 US Census, Duval County is home to 995,567 people. Back in 2010, that number was 864,253. That’s approximately a 15% increase, and more than 20% are under 18 years old.

Duval County Public Schools serves a total of 130,000 students. The district’s ‘Master Facilities Plan’ intends to find a place for those students to learn.

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DCPS is one of the state’s largest districts, but it has some of the oldest schools. Waterleaf Elementary is the newest facility, built a decade ago.

“The challenges don’t change just because we’re growing. We just have more of them,” Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene said.

The 15-year plan maps out where the district expects the most growth. While the southside and beaches are growing, the urban corridor is consolidating, according to Greene.

For example, the plan’s first project at Rutledge Pearson Elementary will consolidate the school with Martin Luther King Jr. and Henry F. Kite Elementary.

“It was more cost-effective to build a brand-new school than try and renovate or repair to bring those schools to standard,” Dr. Greene said. “The Master Facility Plan is a living document. It will change.”

The plan also includes projects for expansion. Sandalwood High School is one of the district’s largest schools, with nearly 3,000 students. Some of them are currently learning inside portable classrooms. However, a project soon to break ground will add up to 40 new classrooms to replace the portables.

The funding comes from the half-cent sales tax, which voters approved in 2020. It will help pay for more than two dozen schools over the next 15 years.

After building, Greene said the district would then look at hiring. In a high school classroom, one teacher is responsible for 25 students, a ratio mandated by the state.

“Best case scenario: we’re meeting those numbers in every classroom. But we know we do not,” Greene said.

A nationwide teacher shortage puts those smaller class sizes in danger, which forces district leaders to look beyond the books to hire.

“It’s been very challenging this school year to hire enough teachers to support the growth we’re seeing this year,” Greene said.

They’re particularly in need of paraprofessionals. There are more than 260 openings this year, and the district recently raised the salary to $15 an hour.

“Our paraprofessionals are imperative. They are that second set of eyes and hands that provide support in the classroom,” Greene said.

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To make up for the shortage, DCPS recently passed a contract with Elevate K-12, a program that allows teachers to be streamed virtually into the classroom with help from in-person substitutes.

“These teachers are certified in the state of Florida. But they may not live in the state of Florida.” Greene said this innovation would help solve the shortage.