Hi there, I’m Katie — a Lakeland mom who is about to enroll my child in kindergarten.
I am writing this from the perspective of one parent to another that has spent years engaged with the school system and private schools in our area, in the hopes that it helps you, whether you’re a lifelong Lakelander or a person considering a move to the area.
When it comes to Pre-K-12 education in Florida, we are what is known as an “opportunity state,” which means parents have more choices on where to send their student outside of the traditional zoned school.
The positive of this is that it empowers parents and guardians to have more options to choose the school that best meets the needs of their children.
The downside is that it also creates a rather large menu of options, and it isn’t always clear on how to access those options or navigate the system.
That is why we’ve put together this guide to help parents and guardians understand the enrollment processes, accessibility to the programs and how to make the best choices for their families.
Prefer your schools in list format? You can also quickly peruse a list of the top Lakeland public schools, as rated by the Florida Department of Education.
What does school choice mean?
Ultimately, what it means is that you can send your child to the school you are zoned for via your residential address, or you can use “parental choice” or opportunity scholarships to try to get them into a different school within the school district (or a private school in some cases).
There are important steps and deadlines parents need to pay attention to for enrollment in a traditional school or to take advantage of alternative school options.
First, let’s tackle the public school system in Polk County.
We have many high-quality options for students within the Polk County Public Schools (PCPS) system, which covers Lakeland and the other 17 municipalities in Polk County.
What makes up the Polk County Public Schools system?
Unlike other school systems around the country, in Florida a school district’s service area is defined by the boundaries of the county. There are 67 counties in Florida, and therefore, 67 public school districts.
Polk County is the seventh-largest school district in Florida with more than 113,000 students, 150 schools and 14,000 employees as of the 2022-2023 school year.
What are the statistics?
Here are the student demographics for the 2022-2023 school year:
- White: 35.5%
- Hispanic: 39.9%
- Black: 20%
- Indian American/Pacific Islander: 0.4%
- Asian: 1.5%
- Multiracial: 2.7%
- 9.5% are English language learners
- 14.6% are students with disabilities
How many public schools are in the Lakeland?
There are 54 public schools in Lakeland (including magnet, choice and charter – more about this later).
This includes Pre-K, elementary, middle and high school levels.
What do school grades mean?
You may have done some online research and read about school grades, but what do they mean?
School and district grades are a very nuanced topic in Florida. Most people believe that there needs to be accountability and measures, but the formulas and testing used to calculate those grades can often lead to misconceptions and misinformation when describing the quality of the school and the educational outcomes and programs they provide.
Here’s an example: A high school is measured on myriad factors including graduation rate. However, if a new school opens with just ninth graders, that school would have a 0% graduation rate and therefore be unable to earn points in that category. The school’s grade would then be calculated using fewer possible points, typically resulting in a lower grade that does not accurately describe the quality of the actual education the children are receiving.
So the bottom line, from a parent’s perspective, is not to put too much credence in the school grade. It’s a great place to start, but it is far from telling the whole story about a school.
What is Voluntary Pre-K (VPK)?
Voluntary prekindergarten (VPK) is a state program designed to prepare every 4-year-old child in Florida for kindergarten. What’s great about it is that it is tuition free as it is subsidized by the state for all eligible Florida students.
As a parent, this can be a much-needed break from the cost of daycare. It is important to note, however, that VPK is only a four-hour program, so you may have to pay for wrap-around services depending on your family’s needs.
VPK is offered through Polk County Public Schools as well as numerous private daycares and preschools. To receive the tuition waiver, you must apply through the Early Learning Coalition of Polk County and present this voucher to your VPK provider. It’s simple to complete and the Early Learning Coalition can be very helpful in answering any questions you might have.
To learn more about Polk County Public Schools VPK offerings, click here. Applications for the 2023-24 VPK program will open on March 7, 2023.
To learn more about other state-approved VPK providers in Polk County, click here.
When it comes to charter and private schools, it can be advantageous to enroll your child in the VPK program at their location to increase your child’s chances of accessing seats during the kindergarten enrollment process.
How do I enroll my child in Polk County Public Schools?
The Polk County Public Schools has a very comprehensive guide to enrolling your child in their school system and that can be accessed here.
Here are a few things to keep in mind from my personal experience.
The first step in enrollment is to decide what school you are interested in sending your student to.
You have two options:
- Send to your traditional zoned school
- Explore school choice options
What about zoning?
You can use this map to search for your address and find the zoned schools. My husband and I used this tool when we were house hunting to validate zoning. Protip: Realtor.com or Zillow.com often did not have accurate zoning information.
Also, PCPS is undergoing a full rezoning exercise in which the new maps should be released in the Spring or Summer of 2023 and take effect the following 2024-2025 school year. We all wait in anticipation of the new maps, but as Polk County is one of the fastest-growing communities in the country, the need to rezone is understandable.
If you take advantage of your zoned school, you’ll need to make sure you review the appropriate required documents, entrance and immunization requirements, complete the student entry form and make an appointment to visit your zoned school to submit the registration forms to complete the process.
The zoned, magnet and choice public school open enrollment process typically starts in January.
Enrolling in traditional zoned schools
Previews allow students and parents to learn what to expect during the transition into middle or high school. For students entering high school, a freshman preview is typically held in early spring. For students entering middle school, a preview will be held on Thursday, April 13 at 6 p.m.
Specific information about bus routes, bus times, lunch procedures, teacher assignments, and schedules will be available during regular orientation in August. If you missed the preview, please contact your zoned school directly.
For students entering kindergarten, schools will host a kindergarten visit event on April 20, 2023. Check with your zoned school for the specific time. Students entering kindergarten must be five years old on or before September 1, 2023. Visit your zoned elementary school with the required documents on preview day or on a following day by appointment. New students may be registered in person or online. Students currently enrolled in a Polk County pre-K or VPK program must register in person.
You can call 863-534-0716 for additional assistance enrolling your child.
What about other options?
What if I want to explore options outside of my student’s zoned school?
This is where the process gets a little more complicated. Stick with me. PCPS offers several different types of school choices.
- Controlled open enrollment
- Accelerated Learning programs (IB/AICE)
- Career Academies
There are also options for students with special needs, home school students, virtual school and other alternatives. Learn more here about all options.
Controlled open enrollment was established by the Florida Legislature and allows students to request a transfer to another school besides their zoned school if that school has available seats. Controlled open enrollment does not include requests to get into magnet schools, choice schools, International Baccalaureate, Cambridge AICE, and career academies. That process is different. Controlled open enrollment will open at 8:30 a.m. on Monday, April 3, 2023, after the schools get a better idea of what their enrollment will be through the traditional registration process. You would apply through the parent portal.
What are Magnet and Choice Schools?
Magnet/Choice schools offer a rigorous academic program focused on specific areas of student interest, such as the arts, International Baccalaureate or STEM in addition to the standard required curriculum of general education.
Admittance to a magnet school is achieved through an application. You are eligible for magnet schools that are in the zoned area for your residential address. You can find your zone here and check the box that says Magnet Zones.
There are two types of choice schools. Partial choice schools have kids for the zoned area, as well as a percentage of students admitted through an application process. Full-choice schools have a population entirely made up of students who applied to the school. The nuanced difference in these is only because of historical desegregation orders and nothing you really need to worry about. The process is the same nonetheless.
You’ll sometimes hear people explain the application process as a lottery. That is because students are randomly selected from the applicant pool through a computer system. Once the student is selected, the school district will notify you via the parent portal or via email. You then have 10 working days to accept the admittance and go to the school with two proofs of address for registration during the designated time.
The open enrollment period for the 2023-2024 school year opens on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, and closes on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, at 4 p.m.
There is one particular choice school that has a slightly different process due to its audition requirement. Harrison School of the Arts is a performing and visual arts magnet program in which students have their own campus embedded into the Lakeland High School campus. Students attending Harrison attend general education as a part of the Lakeland High School student body.
The Harrison enrollment process is different in that you must apply (applications are accepted Nov. 1, 2022 – Jan. 9, 2023). Then students are selected to audition and do so Jan. 24 – Feb. 1, 2023. Students are notified March 24 of their admission status.
What about charter schools?
A charter school is still considered to be a tuition-free public school. Made possible through state statute, they are governed by a local independent board that applies for a performance contract or “charter” through the Polk County School Board, which is considered to be their sponsor.
The charter allows the school to operate under defined rules and regulations and the charter school is held accountable for academic and financial results. As they are independent, however, they are exempt from the district and most state statutes. The schools receive funding from the state on a per-pupil basis and receive 95% of those funds, with the sponsoring district receiving an administrative fee.
The freedom from the district and state statutes is intended to allow charter schools to be more innovative, offering alternative methods of instruction (like Montessori for example), demonstrate better student performance, and make the local school the agent of change for the students the school serves.
In Lakeland, the schools of McKeel Academy are the most popular charter schools. This includes:
- South McKeel Academy (grades PreK-6)
- McKeel Academy Central (grades PreK-6)
- McKeel Academy of Tech (grades 7-12)
Any student entering grades Pre-K may apply to attend during the 14-day open enrollment period. Visit here to learn more about how to enroll at McKeel.
Other popular charter schools in Lakeland include:
- Achievement Academy – special needs students
- Lakeland Montessori Schoolhouse & Middle School
- Magnolia Montessori Academy
- Mi Escuela Montessori
- Polk State Collegiate High School
- Polk State Lakeland Gateway
What about Accelerated Learning programs (IB/AICE)?
Cambridge AICE or Advanced International Certificate of Education is an accelerated method of academic study offered solely through the University of Cambridge International Examinations (CIE), a division of the University of Cambridge. AICE provides a flexible, broad-based curriculum that is offered at schools and colleges in over 161 countries and is recognized by the Florida Department of Education as a rigorous curriculum.
For schools that offer AICE courses, eligible students may take specific AICE courses in isolation, or work to earn an AICE diploma. To earn an AICE diploma, students must earn seven credits of college-level examinations that are given at the end of AICE courses, beginning in the ninth grade.
Students who complete the high school requirements of AICE will earn a specific type of diploma called an Advanced International Certificate of Education Diploma. The AICE Diploma is recognized by the state of Florida as a more rigorous diploma than a regular Florida high school diploma.
Right now, two Polk County high schools offer Cambridge AICE — Tenoroc High School and Winter Haven High School. Lakeland, Mulberry, and Auburndale zoned students would attend the program at Tenoroc.
The open application priority period for the 2023-2024 school year opens on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, and closes on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, at 4 p.m.
IB is an acronym for International Baccalaureate. IB high schools use a specific rigorous curriculum that aims to develop and challenge inquiring, knowledgeable, and caring young people who are motivated to succeed.
IB programs are different from other curricula because they:
- Encourage students of all ages to think critically and challenge assumptions
- Develop independently or through government and national systems, incorporating quality practice from research and our global community of schools
- Encourage students of all ages to consider both local and global context
- Develop multilingual students
Students who meet high school graduation requirements and successfully complete the IB Diploma Programme will earn an IB Diploma.
There are currently two high schools in Polk County that offer IB programs — Bartow High School and Haines City High School. Lakeland students zoned for George Jenkins High School, Kathleen High School, and Lakeland High School seeking IB would attend Bartow High School. Lakeland students zoned for Lake Gibson High School or Tenoroc High School would attend Haines City High School for the IB program.
Learn more about the IB program by clicking here. The open application priority period for the 2023-24 school year opens on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, and closes on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, at 4 p.m.
Students who earn AICE or IB diplomas would also earn Florida High School diplomas as part of these programs.
What about Career Academies?
Polk County Public Schools is widely recognized as having the second largest number of career academies in the country. Based on the innovative strategies of Nashville’s school system, the career academies offer small, personalized learning communities based on a career theme.
The academies provide a college-prep curriculum as well as a path to industry certifications. The ultimate goal is that whether you are college-bound or not, you are leaving PCPS with the tools to find employment.
Career Academies align with local industry needs and ensure that students are prepared to become skilled employees in high-demand occupations.
You can apply for a career academy through the parent portal during the open enrollment period, which opens for the 2023-2024 school year on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, and closes on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, at 4 p.m.
If the career academy of your student’s choice is already at their zoned school, the application process is not necessary. Just speak with your child’s school guidance counselor.
View all of the career academy offerings here. Learn more about enrollment here or call 863-519-8438.
What if I am enrolling my child mid-school year?
I’m going to be honest here — this is a real challenge. Most of the seats are taken in the open enrollment period in January and February, however, the Superintendent Frederick Heid is trying to find ways to make these programs more accessible to students moving mid-year.
Heid has created rolling controlled open enrollment that happens throughout the year that allows for available seats to be allocated through several enrollment periods. This process is subject to change in terms of dates of open enrollment, so be sure to pay attention to PCPS website. Unfortunately, magnet, choice, and accelerated education programs are no longer available during the extended enrollment periods, but if for some reason seats are not filled in these programs, you may still want to contact the office of Acceleration and Innovation to learn more.
Controlled open enrollment will open at 8:30 a.m. on Monday, April 3, 2023 through the parent portal.