Schools in West Orange County playing catch-up with development

The fast growth of West Orange County, specifically Horizon West, poses a unique challenge for Orange County Public Schools.

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  • | 11:23 a.m. January 6, 2016
Renderings of the new West Orange relief high school.
Renderings of the new West Orange relief high school.
  • West Orange Times & Observer
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WEST ORANGE COUNTY  Growth in Orange County is outpacing Florida 2 to 1 and the U.S. 3 to 1, and nearly 45% of homes in the pipeline for Orange County are in the Horizon West area. 

As a result of the growth, several West Orange public schools are getting crowded.

For Orange County Public Schools, the growth poses a unique challenge. Orange County builds roads and infrastructure in anticipation of growth, but for OCPS to open a school, there must be a sufficient number of students to attend the school. 

“It’s different for (OCPS) because they just don’t go out and build a school and not have the students to put in it,” said S. Scott Boyd, District 1 county commissioner. “It’s extremely important for them to have the timing down as to when they’re going to need another school.”


OCPS isn’t ignoring growth and overcrowded schools. In Orange County, seven schools will open this year and 14 more in 2017, according Pam Gould, District 4 Orange County School Board member. 

In the West Orange area, the first new school to open will be the relief elementary school for Sunset Park Elementary. The school is set to open this year, and the School Board is scheduled to finalize its zoning at a Jan. 26 public meeting. The new school will help alleviate overcrowding, but the zoning likely will require some families who recently moved to a new school to uproot again — something Gould said is a challenge of moving into a new, high-growth area. 

“We’re trying to do what we can to accommodate, but because they have so many kids out there, it’s just really hard with the growth in the area,” Gould said. “We’re kind of stuck going either way on that one.” 

In 2017, two relief schools will open — one to relieve MetroWest Elementary and a second to relieve West Orange High School, which currently has 4,121 students enrolled — more than 1,000 greater than its 2,994 capacity.

Gould expects the new high school finally will put West Orange High under capacity and — more importantly — keep it there as growth continues along State Road 50 and the western end of the county toward Lake County. Students in these areas will likely attend West Orange. 

“We know there’s going to be growth, because right near (West Orange) are new developments coming out of the ground,” Gould said. 

Furthermore, balancing the student numbers will be critical to ensuring the new high school doesn’t become overcrowded.

“It will be enough under (capacity) that we have a good portion of students, but not so close to the capacity number, where we’re going crazy again,” Gould said. 

Beyond 2017, a relief school will be needed for Bridgewater Middle, which currently is more than 500 students over capacity.

Parent Judy Paulsen has had two children attend Bridgewater as it has battled overcrowding.

“We definitely need the relief,” she said. “When a school is overcrowded or when it doesn’t have the infrastructure to handle the number of students, that’s a detriment to everybody — to the students, to the teachers — and it just makes it a harder learning environment, harder to teach and harder to learn.” 

A school to relieve area middle schools is slated within OCPS’s 10-year plan, set to open in 2019. Gould hopes to move the opening to 2018, but it depends on the district’s budget and capabilities. 

An additional elementary school is planned for 2020. 


As a Realtor and West Orange resident, parent Jane Dunkelberger knows the area is desirable. Dunkelberger has kids in Sunset Park Elementary and Bridgewater Middle. 

“After being in the area close to 10 years, I knew there was a lot of growth coming since the Horizon West plan had been on the books,” she said. “I had been studying the growth that was coming, and when the market went down, I knew it would come back and it would come back fast and furious.”

Dunkelberger is thankful for Gould’s work in stressing the need for relief schools in the area. She wants to see the school system continue to become more proactive in planning relief schools.

“People are going to continue to come,” she said.

A few years ago, Gould and Boyd brought developers to OCPS to talk about the trends they were seeing, to bring OCPS up to date on what is happening in the area.

The next high school planned for the area will be placed in the Seidel Road area, but it is not currently in OCPS’s 10-year plan. Gould plans to watch trends carefully in the next few years to see if she will need to push it into the 10-year timeframe. 

OCPS also is working on a relief school site between Dr. Phillips High School and Freedom High School, to help alleviate capacity issues at both schools.  

Dr. Phillips High School is over capacity but is able to handle it because the area on the north part of campus functions well, Gould said. Before OCPS can set timeframes for the Dr. Phillips-Freedom school, it must obtain land. The relief school is not in the 10-year plan, but Gould anticipates it may be moved into the plan in the course of the next few years. 

Contact Jennifer Nesslar at [email protected].


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