Bursting at the seams: St. Lucie schools accelerates construction to keep up with growth
By Colleen Wixon, Treasure Coast Newspapers, June 15, 2023
ST. LUCIE COUNTY — The schools in south county are full, even as developers plan thousands more homes for families looking to settle in and around Tradition, district officials say.
"All schools in the (Tradition zone) are just packed to the brim with students," Superintendent Jon Prince told the School Board recently as it discussed how the district will handle the explosive growth.
Currently, every school in the Port St. Lucie/Tradition zone is at capacity, Prince said. Developers are pressing the district about construction timelines for new schools, he said. Growth is occurring throughout the county, but the north county is growing at a much slower pace than the south, Prince said. Several schools in north county, referred to as the Green Zone, are under-enrolled, he said.
The district is working to create space for south-county students, but it will take time. Construction began Tuesday on an $80 million, 2,000-student high school at 14505 SW Crosstown Parkway, expected to open in 2025.
Construction of a $50 million K-8 school in Tradition, originally planned to open in 2027, now is expected to open in 2026, Prince said. Its exact location has not been finalized, said district spokesperson Lydia Martin.
St. Lucie County's population has exploded over the past 10 years, jumping 18% — from nearly 278,000 to 329,000 — between 2010 and 2020. Port St. Lucie is the fastest-growing city on the Treasure Coast. Between 2018 and 2022, it issued nearly 18,000 home permits, records show.
Quality schools attract families
Families searching for quality schools are moving to the area, Prince said. This year, St. Lucie County added 2,104 students — a 4.5% jump. Between the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years, the district grew by 1,774 students — a 3.9% increase, district records show. Enrollment as of October was 47,164.
School Board members got a first-hand look at the growth last month, taking an hour-long school-bus tour of Tradition before returning to the district offices for another two hours discussing ideas for handling the growth.
"Port St. Lucie is so huge. It was mind-blowing," board member Donna Mills said.
"We do have to be proactive in making sure students have an opportunity to get a quality public education," board Chair Troy Ingersoll said.
Families choose where they live based on the quality of the surrounding schools, Prince said. Over the past few years, the district has been working with the community to determine which programs are placed in its high schools, he said, with the aim of preparing students for the workforce or college.
The new Tradition high school is expected to offer five medical-themed programs — dental lab, biomedical, exercise science, nursing and occupational/physical therapy — a hospitality program; and advanced courses such as dual enrollment and Advanced Placement.
Crowded schools present problems in accommodating special-needs students, Prince said. The district has seen an increase in the need for special-needs pre-kindergarten classes, particularly in the Port St. Lucie/Tradition zone, he said.
"There are not available rooms to keep adding these services," he said.
New schools are just part of the plan
Building schools, however, is just part of St. Lucie's plan. Next year the district is to begin reviewing attendance zones in preparation for the new high school. The district also wants to fill under-utilized schools by making changes that will attract families.
For example, plans are to reconfigure C.A. Moore Elementary School from a K-5 school to a K-8 model. The school currently has 396 students but can accommodate 805. The project, to be done in phases, could add about 225 seats to the school by 2027, Deputy Superintendent Helen Wild told the board.
Other ideas include creating a free preschool program at Francis K. Sweet Elementary, which could draw families looking for childcare for younger children, Wild said. About 20% of the magnet school's seats would be reserved for children enrolled in the preschool. Such a program also could attract teachers who want their young children attending school nearby, she said.
Colleen Wixon is the education reporter for TCPalm/Treasure Coast Newspapers. Contact her at email@example.com.