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Student enrollment numbers for the Washington County School District were published as part of a report for a Nov. 13 school board meeting.

Overall enrollment numbers as of Nov. 8, 2023, are lower than the level recorded in 2015. However, enrollment has fluctuated over the years.

Depending on the particular year you look at, enrollment has either increased or decreased from year to year. 

The most recently recorded student enrollment number was 3,296–down from the 3,327 figure on April 28, 2015. Student enrollment was 3,306 in 2016; 3,263 in 2017; 3,261 in 2018; 3,354 in 2019; 3,407 in 2021; and 3,442 in 2022. 

2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, is not listed.

Troy Peoples, director of administrative services for the District, gave his insight on the data in an interview days after the meeting.

“A couple of things stand out. Long-term, if you look from 2015 to 2023, Chipley High School’s actually up,” Peoples said.

Chipley High has 549 students this year, compared to 519 students in 2015. 

“Where we’ve been seeing the most significant decrease in enrollment is at the south end of the county,” Peoples said. “Part of that, in my opinion, as to what that’s about is Vernon’s kind of a bedroom community. A lot of people may live there but work in Bay County.”

Vernon has 330 students this year, down from 409 students in 2015. 

“Especially since Hurricane Michael, as more affordable housing’s becoming available in Bay County, those people are getting closer to their work,” Peoples said.

Hurricane Michael hit Bay County in October 2018, wrecking many homes and buildings in the process. The Category 5 storm “threw such a wrench in things,” Peoples said.

“Actually, right when it hit, we experienced a little bit of an increase,” he said. “Everybody came north to find housing but then they kind of went back. It seems like people are coming to the southend of the county, maybe coming out of Panama City.” 

There has been a recent uptick in elementary school enrollment, including in Vernon, which Peoples called “encouraging.” Vernon Elementary School’s enrollment this year is 601, higher than the 546 recorded in May 2021. 

“Maybe what’s happening–and, again, this is just theory or my thoughts on it–while there is more affordable housing in Bay County, Florida is growing rapidly,” Peoples said. “I think it’s growing north. I’m hopeful that it’s young families. Maybe the housing market’s getting saturated down there [in Bay County]. Vernon’s obviously going to be more affordable to live than Bay County. Maybe it’s starting to reverse a little bit and flow back out.”

The awareness of school choice options is another factor to consider, according to Peoples.

“Homeschool, they’ve went up,” Peoples said. “I think it started with [COVID], especially at our high school. We lost a lot of students during COVID. They went to homeschool and just never returned. There are two private schools here in Chipley, so some students attend there.”

The state voucher program becoming a little more open may also cause the homeschooling trend to continue, he said.

“I believe we offer the best product but I certainly understand parents have choices, and that’s fine too,” Peoples said.

There is optimism with the growth going on and building permits recently pulled in Sunny Hills, he said.

“Hopefully, that should translate into students in the south end of the county as well,” Peoples said.