St. Johns County is growing, and the school district is having trouble keeping up. With two new K-8 schools to fill and most current schools in the district now over-capacity, the county has put forth a rezoning plan for the 2018-2019 school year that has left many parents feeling uneasy.
For many, St. Johns County’s top-rated school district is the main reason they chose to move to the area. Now that parents are being told their children might have to change schools again, some are wondering if they made the right choice.
“There’s the picture of St. Johns County I was sold on when I moved here, but when you take the picture off the wall to look at the house you’re living in, you see that it’s falling apart,” said Denver Cook, a resident of Nocatee’s Coastal Oaks neighborhood who intends to run for school board.
The last time the school district was rezoned was in 2014 with the opening of Valley Ridge Academy in Nocatee. Having already changed schools once, many kids are reluctant to do so again. The district’s focus on K-8 schools has also been a source of concern for the parents of sixth through eighth grade students, as some are worried that the different class size and ratio of teachers to students will impact their child’s learning.
“It’s not that big a deal for K-5, because they have one teacher all day long, but for the middle school grades it is a challenge,” Cook said. “It’s not something the district or board solves, it’s the principal and the parents that have to solve it, and I don’t think that’s a responsible approach to the problem.”
According to Superintendent Tim Forson, however, K-8 schools are the county’s most cost-effective option.
“It’s more effective to build K-8 schools, because we’re able to respond to nine grade levels under one building, whereas with an elementary-middle model, we would be building multiple schools in the same development,” Forson explained. “The overcrowding and over-capacity issues are going to come about whether we’re building K-8s, middle and elementary schools or any configuration. The fact of the matter is, the growth is going to come before the funds to build the schools, or even before the approval to build schools.”
Cook found that explanation unsatisfactory, however.
“Affordability is not the No. 1 reason to do something in education,” he said. “The No. 1 reason should be so that our kids become responsible adults in society.”
Some parents are also questioning whether rezoning will really alleviate the problem of overcrowding.
“It is a temporary fix to boost numbers in one campus and lower numbers at another campus,” said Megan, a resident of Nocatee’s Willowcove neighborhood who wished to be referenced by her first name only. “You’re not solving a long-term problem.”
According to Forson, though, rezoning is just par for the course in building new schools.
“For any school in St. Johns County, we have the same expectations – that they provide the same kind of services and the same kind of support to families and children – so no matter what school a family is zoned for, our expectation is that that school will serve them well,” Forson said. “Unfortunately, though, rezoning is inevitable in a high-growth school district. It will happen, and it will happen in the future again.”
Aside from all these concerns, however, some parents are saying an overall lack of communication from the school district is what has them most upset.
“They put out the first proposal in September, and it was just kind of thrown out there,” said Elaine, another Willowcove resident. “We started writing to them to try and get some information…and you kind of feel like it goes into a black hole, to be honest. The information that they provide is limited, and nothing is really defined so that we can understand what it means. We care about our kids, we care about their education – that’s why we’re in St. Johns County – but we would just like the school board to be a little more helpful.”