The Baars Family crosses Southwest Avenue for April, Izzy and Paisley's first day at Southwest Elementary School | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

Why this matters:

  • More than 115,000 Polk County students started classes on Friday.
  • Teacher vacancies are almost triple what they were six years ago. Many students are starting the year with substitutes.
  • Drivers who don’t stop for school buses may face hefty fines.

Early on Friday morning, Katie Harrell and Brad Baars parked their car in the Southgate Shopping Center and walked their three daughters — 10-year-old April, 6-year-old Izzy and 5-year-old Paisley — to their new school, Southwest Elementary.

April and Izzy had been attending Purcell Elementary in Mulberry, but the family moved.

“We’re excited,” Katie Harrell said.

“I’m not,” said Izzy, adding that she was nervous about “the new people.”

“It’s a new school and we’ve never been here before,” April explained.

When asked what she was nervous about, the littlest sister exclaimed, “Nothing!” then stomped both feet before the family headed down the sidewalk.

On Friday morning, bright yellow school buses filled the roads, Polk County Sheriff’s Office crossing guards blew whistles and held up stop signs, and more than 115,000 Polk County Public Schools students returned to the classroom for the 2023-2024 school year.

Superintendent Frederick Heid said he was glad to greet the new school year, with the district opening new schools in Winter Haven and Haines City, as well as the modernized Garner Academy in Winter Haven.

“We’re eager to get settled into our routines and move forward with another year of learning and progress,” Heid said, calling the first day a success.

Large county with staff shortages

Polk County is the 7th largest school district in the state and among the top 30 in the nation. It has 167 regular, charter, magnet, academy and special education schools in an area the size of Rhode Island.

It is the second largest employer in the county, with 7,000 teachers on the payroll and another 6,000 staff.

Teacher shortages remain an issue again this year — a problem throughout the state and nation. Some students entered classrooms staffed by substitutes Friday as the district continues to advertise positions. Statistics show the number of teachers needed on the first day has steadily increased each year — nearly tripling over the last six years:

  • 2023 — 311 teacher openings
  • 2022 — 216 teacher openings
  • 2021 — 228 teacher openings
  • 2019 — 120 teacher openings
  • 2018 — 120 teacher openings
  • 2017 — 111 teacher openings

“We currently have 311 vacancies, but this figure might not be completely accurate, since some teachers are still being onboarded,” said district spokesman Kyle Kennedy. “We also added more positions this year to account for the county’s growth.”

In addition to needing teachers, the district was short 60 bus drivers Friday morning. By comparison, the district started the 2019 school year short 25 bus drivers.

PCPS currently employs 510 drivers, who travel thousands of miles each day to get children safely to and from schools. According to the district’s bus delays page, more than 70 routes were anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour — or more — late today.

Parents who have bus-related questions and concerns may call 863-534-7300.

Polk County Public Schools

Once again this year, the district has opened a call center for worried parents as district officials work to get the kinks out of the system. Parents who have bus-related questions and concerns may call 863-534-7300 until Friday, Aug. 18. The temporary call center will be staffed on weekdays from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. , with a half hour break starting at 11:45 a.m. for a shift change. Calls will be answered, but hold times could be longer than usual.

Staff members will be able to provide help with transportation questions including student bus numbers, stop times and locations, transportation eligibility and bus delays. Families can also check the Parent Portal for student busing information.

Career academies

District officials have worked to accommodate the varied interests of all students, targeting those who want to attend college, those who want to work in the arts, and those who want to work in a trade like plumbing, electrician or carpenter.

Southwest Elementary’s Digital Media Academy is the first PCPS elementary school with a career academy, teaching students to use cameras to videotape events and even create stop-motion animation using LEGOs.

Southwest Elementary School Digital Media Academy teacher Jennifer Cayer | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

Jennifer Cayer began the program 14 years ago in what had been a library closet with eight students — only six of whom could fit in the room with her at one time.  This year, she has 45 students and nine brand new iMacs in her classroom — which were sitting on desks underneath shelves filled with dozens of awards from PCPS for students’ work over the years.

“There is a career in this — it’s not just playing TV news show,” Cayer said.

One of the awards her students have won was for Alivia Rumrell’s documentary on Florida Fish and Wildlife’s use of a tracking dog and drone to find people lost in the woods. The video was professional-level quality.

“She researched it, she wrote her own questions,” said Jennifer Selfridge, who also teaches Digital Media Academy classes. “It’s amazing how talented these kids are.”

The teaching duo also have students create videos around lessons that teachers say their students are struggling to grasp.  Last year, the students made a video about the differences between erosion and weather.  Amy Crain portrayed erosion and wore boxing gloves or held Mjölnir — Thor’s hammer — smashing Doritos and a birthday cake to demonstrate erosion’s destruction, while Serenity Bradley portrayed weathering and used a leaf blower and a water hose to demonstrate moving the things that had been destroyed by erosion.

The students also made a stop-motion commercial to advertise Jet’s Pizza providing the food for spirit night.

“We’re the foundational skills,” Cayer said. “When they go to middle school, they can get certification in things like Adobe and Photoshop … Southwest Middle has a digital media program and Lakeland Highlands has an iTV program and video academy.”

Slow down!

Polk County Sheriff’s Office school crossing guard Betty Turner, 76, helped students and parents across Pablo Street and Southwest Avenue on Friday morning — something she has done for 14 years.  She greeted familiar faces and newcomers alike and said she loves her job and the children. But one thing she doesn’t love is people speeding through the school zone, where the limit is 15 miles per hour.

Polk Sheriff’s Office school crossing guard Betty Turner, 76, helps Sandra Perez and her son Leon Bardales, 6, across the street near Southwest Elementary School. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

“Slow down. It’s unreal” she said. “You find some that just don’t pay attention to the blinking light.”

She said that while she’s not allowed to yell at drivers, her presence in a neon safety vest and holding a stop sign is often enough to get drivers to mend their ways.

Another safety concern is people passing school buses that are stopped to load or unload children. Lawmakers are hoping Senate Bill 766, which was signed by the governor earlier this year, will help.  It allowed school districts to install cameras on the stop paddles school bus drivers use when letting students on or off the bus.

Those cameras are being beta tested on some buses in Polk County this school year, with a goal to have them on every school bus in the future.

People caught blowing past stopped buses can now receive a $225 civil penalty, but no points on their license, if a camera catches them. Of that, $200 will go to the school district for bus safety and enforcement costs and $25 will go to the Florida Department of Education for other safety programs.

Drivers can also still receive a regular ticket, written by a law enforcement officer. Those are $265 for failure to stop for a school bus and — if they illegally pass on the side of the school bus where children enter and exit — there can be an additional $465 ticket.

Some stop paddles on school buses are equipped with cameras to deter drivers from passing. They face a $265 fine if they do. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd has been stubbornly opposed to giving his deputies body cameras or installing dashboard cameras in their patrol vehicles, but he said he favors the bus cameras.

“I’m normally not a traffic camera fan, but I’m absolutely a fan of putting cameras on school buses because nothing is more precious than the cargo they carry — our children,” Judd said early Friday morning.  “If you’re going to pass that bus after the stop paddles are out, it’s going to get expensive.”

But he said even more expensive, or priceless, is the life of a child. “No one wants to live with the thought that they’ve hit a child.”

Judd said, as with red light cameras in Lakeland, videos will be reviewed to ensure the tickets are warranted.

Beyond that, he said he hopes everyone has a wonderful school year.

“It’s not just a place of learning — it’s a place of friendship and community events,” he said.  “So go enjoy your children’s events.”

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at or 863-272-9250.

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