DESTIN — For as long as 30 years, the idea of having a high school in this fishing village has been a dream of many residents. Now, that dream is close to becoming a reality.
Mary Gargas, a Destin Middle School eighth-grader, has watched her two older brothers travel from their home to attend Fort Walton Beach High School. As she prepares to start high school in the fall, Mary said she’s looking forward to the possibility of going to high school in Destin.
“It’s good to see something closer and more convenient,” she said.
With the Okaloosa County School Board's approval of the Destin high school’s charter application last month, the school is scheduled to be open for the 2020-21 school year with enrollment limited to grades 9 and 10.
Mary Gargas will be one of 201 students from the Destin area who will be a freshman during the 2019-20 school year, which means she and her classmates will all be sophomores by the time DHS opens its doors.
According to the charter application, 175 students — the exact number of Destin students who are expected to enroll in the eighth grade this upcoming school year — are projected to enroll in the ninth grade. About 100 students may attend the 10th grade in the high school’s inaugural year.
Will that be enough?
“Yes!” said Heidi LoCicero,
Enrollment may even surpass those projected numbers, said LoCicero, who is one of the founding board members of Destin High School Inc. Parents of home-schoolers, private school students, the Ballet Academie, Niceville and Santa Rosa Beach have all contacted her about registering, she said.
“The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” she said. “Parents want to know if they can help support the school and start registering. We’ve been pretty pleased by the response.”
Charlie Marello, Niceville High’s principal, said he is not surprised by all the inquiries.
“I know there’s a definite interest in the community to have their own school and to not have to travel outside of their community to attend school,” said Marello, a former principal at Destin Middle School.
Niceville High School has been deemed “at capacity.” That means the school will decline students who are not zoned for Niceville unless they have attained a hardship waiver under the Controlled Open Enrollment law. Because of the law, Marello said the school has seen a significant decrease in students from Destin compared to four years ago.
As of the last school year, there were 650 students from Destin who attended Niceville or Fort Walton Beach high schools.
Some school officials have raised the concern that a Destin high school would take away students and money from other local schools. But Marello said Niceville and Valparaiso are experiencing significant growth, and any students lost to a Destin high school would quickly be replaced with new students from the local area.
Steve Horton, the Okaloosa County School District's assistant superintendent, confirmed Marello’s statement. He said the district supports parents having a range of options for their children’s education.
“The students in Destin and their parents will continue to make choices according to what’s best for their education,” Horton said.
The Destin high school will be open to all Okaloosa County students in the beginning, but school officials expect most of the students to come from the Destin area. Once it expands to include grades 9-12, the capacity of the charter school would be 800 students, or 200 students per grade.
This fall, the School District projects 713 high school-aged students in Destin. However, 39 of those are registered home-schoolers. Students attending private schools are not required to register with the Okaloosa County school system.
Destin Mayor Gary Jarvis said he believes having a high school in Destin will benefit everyone.
"I think giving the parents and the children the option to stay in Destin after they get out of middle school is a good thing," he said.
Although the school would be more convenient to attend for Mary Gargas, she said extracurricular offerings would play a big role in her decision.
“I’m currently in soccer, band and cross country/track,” she said. “Since college is the plan, they do look for those extracurriculars.”
The Destin High School Inc. board has said it plans to offer extracurricular activities. Tennis, volleyball, swimming, cheer, lacrosse, soccer, golf, basketball, baseball and dance would all be available. But offerings will depend on what kind of facility the high school ends up building or buying. Depending on enrollment, the charter school will determine what AP classes to offer.
In comparison, Baker High School, which has 418 students, offers cross country, football, volleyball, cheerleading, basketball, soccer, weightlifting, baseball, golf, softball and track, as well as band and chorus. This year, Baker offered AP courses in English Literature, Environmental Science, U.S. History, Psychology and European History.
Prebble Ramswell, the president of the Destin High School board, said the school has a few options for its location. Ramswell said she plans to announce the advisory board’s decision in a few weeks.
“I can’t wait until we actually have the physical property because I feel like, for a lot of people, that tangible aspect will make such a huge difference,” Ramswell said.
Ultimately, Mary said her decision to attend DHS will be determined by after-school activities. And, of course, what her parents wish.
“They like the idea of a high school in Destin, (but) we’ll decide once the school is open,” she said.