ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – Central Florida’s population is booming and Orange County Public Schools is keeping up with the growth by opening five new schools this year, with more expected to be built in the coming years.
The tables are set and the teachers are getting their textbooks as the final preparations at Panther Lake Elementary School are underway before the first day of school.
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“All of those fresh smelling books and new paint, it’s absolutely fantastic, so we’re excited,” Panther Lake Elementary principal Christine Szymanski said.
Symanski is the principal of the new elementary school in Horizon West. The longtime educator remembers when the site was just a pile of dirt a year ago.
“The community has been so supportive and they’ve kind of (watched) this school (grow) from the ground up,” Symanski said.
Five new schools are opening in Orange County this year: Kelly Park School in Apopka, Stonewyck Elementary in Orlando, as well as three new schools in Horizon West including Panther Lake Elementary, Hamlin Elementary, and Hamlin Middle School.
School board member Pam Gould represents Horizon West and the surrounding area.
“It’s an amazing area. It has a wonderful plan, but growth is challenging,” Gould said.
Horizon West is booming. The district calls it the fastest growing area in the county with 9,000 students enrolling here in the last five years.
Lauren Roth, the assistant director of public relations for OCPS, said this growth prompted the district to prioritize building these new relief schools.
“This school (Panther Lake), the three schools it’s relieving, were all built within the last five years,” Roth said.
Since 2003, Roth said the district has built 64 relief schools as well as renovated or replaced an additional 132 schools.
Gould said that was made possible with the voter approved half-penny sales tax, which is up for renewal in 2024.
“We wouldn’t be able to do all the things that we’ve done across the district to make sure that we have equitable schools without that half-penny sales tax,” Gould said.
The district is projecting 209,000 students will be enrolled this year, which is up 3,000 from last year. Gould said the growth isn’t slowing down.
“We’re just a very popular place to be,” she said.
The district added it is already looking forward with plans to build 15 more relief schools across the county in the next eight years. Officials use birth rates and enrollment numbers to project future growth.
“It’s not going to change for several years to come with the trajectory of the population that’s coming here and we just go as fast as we can to try to meet the need,” Gould said.
With all of the projected growth in Horizon West, the district is already making plans to build a new relief elementary school to serve the area in the next few years.
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