Sumter schools see increases In enrollment

Michelle Ramos Bonoso, 9, works on an assignment during Heather Davis’ fourth-grade class at Wildwood Elementary School.

While schools in neighboring counties had a drop in enrollment this year, those in Sumter County have opened their doors to more students. The Sumter County School District and The Villages Charter School both have high enrollment numbers this school year. At the beginning of last year, the Sumter County School District had 4,764 students, not including pre-K or the Charter School. It now has 5,222 students enrolled, an increase of 458 students. And despite a national bus driver shortage, the Sumter County School District has added six to seven bus routes, totaling 63 routes to accommodate students.

Sumter County School District Superintendent Richard Shirley said, “Lake Panasoffkee Elementary and South Sumter Middle School are at 90+% capacity.”

Shirley said the rise is due to multiple factors.

“Growing up here since the age of 12, I’ve always thought Sumter was a  great place to live,” Shirley said.  “Now, other people are figuring that out as well. The quality of the school system is a positive influence on those enrollment numbers and provides lots of career options for older students and a strong foundation for our younger ones.”

For VCS, the continued expansion of The Villages means enrollment was meant to rise, said Randy McDaniel, Director of Education for VCS.

“Since day one, that has been our driving force,” McDaniel said.

To accommodate this, McDaniel said, “we’re following the process.” This means reviewing applications with a priority list of students, a lottery and a wait list.

Over the past three years, VCS has hit record-high enrollment with wait lists now at nearly all grade levels.

There were 3,395 students enrolled and walking the halls on the first day of school this year, up from  3,320 students.

In neighboring Lake County School District, the number of students dropped by just under 1,000 at 43,917 students across all schools.

Marion County similarly dropped by just over 1,000 students, with 42,232 at the start of the school year.

However, Marion tends to hover around 42,000-43,000 and is “on-target” for enrollment, Marion County School District Director of Public Relations Kevin Christian said.

Enrollment numbers can change as the school year progresses, and change and expansion remain constant factors for the Villages Charter School and the Sumter County School District.

With the past several years of reaching maximum capacity, the Villages Charter School will soon have a new K-8 school and high school campus South of County Road 470 in The Villages. The current K-8 campus on County Road 466 will remain part of the charter school system. Both K-8 campuses will feed into the new high school, which is set to have world-class academic and athletic facilities that will greatly expand the offerings for students.

The Sumter County School District also has about 120 acres of property near Lake-Sumter State College’s Sumterville satellite campus that could be used for, “one or more future school sites,  district office needs or other future growth needs,” Shirley said.

Currently, the hay fields and cow pastures are used by South Sumter FFA and Wildwood FFA chapters.

Increased  student populations means keeping up protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as additional cleaning and temperatures checks.

VCS is also limiting on-campus visitation and going virtual for some events such as open houses.

Since the start of the school year, 489 students have tested positive as of Sept 2., with 295 cases at eight public schools.

The Villages Charter School has recorded 194 positive student cases.

“I think we all wrestle with the right thing to do in these circumstances, and struggle with the delicate balance between individual rights and health decisions for the common good,” Shirley said. “I’m sure sometimes we get it right and sometimes we don’t, but we all have a duty and obligation to do what we think is right and to do what we can to protect students and staff. We have a great school board that truly cares for our kids, staff and community and try to do the right thing.”

Staff Writer Garrett Shiflet can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5367, or garrett.shiflet@thevillagesmedia.com.