Enrollments up, as school year set to begin

With classes in Gulf County set to resume Tuesday, after a
week of preparation by teachers, the county is preparing for another year of
robust enrollment.

Superintendent Jim Norton said the district made a bold
projection of 1,815 students countywide, in grades Kindergarten through 12th,
not including pre-K numbers.

“Last week we were within 10 of that number,” he said. “I
really think there’s a good chance we will eclipse that number. We’ve added a
lot of people coming into the district.”

Norton broke down the total enrollment with an estimated 536
at Port St. Joe in grades seven through 12, and just under 500, perhaps around
485, at Port St. Joe Elementary. Add to that another roughly 800 students in Wewahitchka,
with the elementary school nearing its capacity. “Wewahitchka High School seems
to be slowest growing,” he said.

“These are higher than pre Hurricane Michael numbers,” he
said. “We’re really happy to be at that. There seems to be a lot of new

Because Port St. Joe High School was designed for more
students, with both elementary schools still below their physical capacity, the
district does not have any classroom expansion on the table. But the administration
remains keenly aware that such a day may be nearing.

“We have been a beneficiary district of other districts from
all over the country, that people have found us and they like our small-town
values and America North Florida way of life,” Norton said. “People are moving
here as a destination; we’re not just a tourist town. We’re truly a destination
place for people to move here and raise their kids, like it is all along the

After last month facing the prospect of being about a
half-dozen teachers short for the start of the school year, the district has
only a deficit of one or two. “We have done real good at closing the gap,”
Norton said.

He said one prospect backed out of a position teaching
history at Port St. Joe high school, and that there may be an opening in Wewa
as well. “We hopefully will have them all covered,” he said.

One prospect that the superintendent is keenly aware of is
that the coronavirus pandemic, now surging in the county, could well mean
further absences among teachers, staff and students.

“This is truly hitting us in Gulf County right now, Several teachers
at Wewa and at Port St. Joe are out, or going out, as we speak,” Norton said. “We
are experiencing a spike, I suspect it has to do with the Delta variant.”

Both vaccinations and masks remain optional, and Norton does
not anticipate a need for school closures, although such an option is contained
with the district rules governing emergency protocols.

“We will adjust the schedule
if necessary,” he said. “There is a broad expectation from our community that schools
will function as normal as possible, and that the population will take
corrective action along the way.”

Norton said he believes hindsight has shown that “the shutdown
of schools was the wrong thing to do. We’re failing society and failing our
duty when we do that. We want to try to act as normal as we possibly can

“We encourage people to be comfortable,” he said. “I think
it is individual choice, we respect the rights of families. We’re trying to be
brave in the face of something that’s scary.”

Meet the Editor

Wendy Weitzel, The Star’s digital editor, joined the news outlet in August 2021, as a reporter covering primarily Gulf County.

Prior to then, she interned for Oklahoma-based news wire service Gaylord News and for Oklahoma City-based online newspaper NonDoc.com during her four years at the University of Oklahoma, from which she graduated in May with degrees in online journalism and political science.

While at OU, Weitzel was selected as Carnegie-Knight News21 Investigative Fellow among 30 top journalism students from around the country. She also was senior editor managing a 12-person newsroom in coordination with Oklahoma Watch, a non-profit news organization in eastern Oklahoma.

Wendy Weitzel The Star Digital Editor

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