Private schools hit by economy
Parents feeling the pinch seek to save on tuition
By JENNIFER PRICE
The News Journal
Margaret Reynolds is pulling two children out of Catholic school and enrolling them in a public charter school next fall.
She would like to give her 13-year-old twins the same education that her 16-year-old is receiving at St. Elizabeth High School in Wilmington, but the finances are too tight.
"I love everything about Catholic education, but I can't afford to have three in Catholic high school. Signing that tuition commitment is too much of a risk," said Reynolds, who stays home with her 3-year-old daughter.
Reynolds said her family can't count on her husband's fluctuating paychecks. He is a mechanic at Porter Automotive Group in Newark.
"Getting your car fixed these days is kind of like a luxury," she said.
Facing the worst recession in a generation, parents across the country are being forced to make painful decisions about private school. Nationwide, private schools have lost 120,000 students this school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The problem could be more acute in the First State, where almost a fifth of Delaware children attend private schools -- one of the highest rates of private-school attendance in the nation. And the issue is affecting a range of schools -- from Greenville's Tatnall School, with its annual high school tuition of $20,000, to the $2,200-a-year Milford Christian School.
"We're not in any vacuum here. We feel the impact of the economy as much as anyone else does," said Mike Morgan, Tatnall's director of communications. Tatnall's endowment is down about 30 percent since last year.
The Catholic Diocese of Wilmington schools, which have annual tuitions ranging from $2,500 to $8,700, could also take a hit. The diocese has closed three schools since 2007 because of declining enrollments.
In Delaware, 11,350 of the state's 23,713 private-school students attend Catholic schools. That number is rapidly declining while enrollment in nonreligious schools is remaining fairly steady.
"There's a great concern about the economy. A number of our families have been displaced and are afraid they won't be able to return next year," said Cathy Weaver, diocesan superintendent. "Families of all income levels are feeling the pinch."
Public school districts -- especially those in New Castle County, where private-school attendance is most concentrated -- are bracing for a potential influx of students during a time the state is facing a $606 million shortfall.
"When these students come back to us from private schools, there is a budget impact," said Red Clay Consolidated School District Superintendent Robert Andrzejewski. "We have to be careful and set aside [money]."
About 5,800 students who live in Red Clay's boundaries attend private school -- more than any other district in the state.
Newly confirmed state Secretary of Education Lillian Lowery said she will consider the possible arrival of private-school students as she tackles a proposed $53.4 million cut to the state's education budget.
Finding the best 'free' fit
Delaware has a long tradition of private schools.
Some of the 150 schools are centered around religious doctrine, others were built in the early 20th century by the state's elite.
But there's more that factors into why the First State has so many private schools.
The perception that public schools offer a subpar education pushes many parents toward private schools with tuitions ranging from $2,200 to $25,000.
Desegregation and busing also played a role.
In 1978, a federal court ordered New Castle County schools to desegregate, busing Wilmington students into the suburbs and suburban students into the city. Private-school enrollment skyrocketed from 12 percent in 1971 to 21 percent in 1982.
For parents who find themselves not able to afford private school, the trick now is to find the best, "free" fit for their children. Many look to charter schools, gifted programs and "choicing" their children into schools with better reputations.
For her twins, who attend Saint Matthew School near Woodcrest, Reynolds chose the Delaware Military Academy, a charter school near Newport that has a "superior" state rating.
"It's similar to a Catholic high school because the class sizes are small and the students receive more one-on-one attention," she said.
Val Whiting is hoping to find a rigorous curriculum for her 7-year-old son, Joseph Raymond, in the state's public schools that is similar to what he is receiving at Elementary Workshop, a pre-kindergarten-through-sixth grade Montessori school in Wilmington. Whiting said she's pulling him out of the $9,000-a-year school in part because of financial constraints but also because she's "fed up paying tuition.
"There has to be great free education out there for my child ... but I don't have confidence in the public school system in Delaware," said Whiting, who owns and operates a fitness boot camp in Wilmington called Game Shape. "If we had unlimited funds, he'd be at Elementary Workshop forever."
Whiting has applied to Brandywine School District's gifted program at Mount Pleasant Elementary School near Penny Hill and Odyssey Charter School in Wilmington. She has also filled out choice applications for Brandywine's Lombardy Elementary in Brandywine Hundred and Red Clay's Brandywine Springs School near Mill Creek.
"I'm trying to get the best possible option for my child," said Whiting, who lives in the Christina School District.
Catholic schools hit hard
Recessions inevitably affect private schools.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, private schools lost nearly half a million students after recessions in the early 1980s. Even after the relatively brief 1990 recession, private schools lost 33,000 students. They lost more than 200,000 students after the recession triggered by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
While 120,000 students have been lost this year, further reductions are expected this spring when parents who paid tuition for the current school year before the financial meltdown decide whether to re-enroll their children for next academic year. Many private schools re-enrollment contracts will be completed in the next couple months.
The hardest hit may be Catholic schools, which educate 40 percent of private-school students nationwide. Catholic enrollment has been dropping for decades, and hundreds of schools have closed.
A drop in student enrollment has forced the Diocese of Wilmington, which oversees 21 schools in Delaware, to merge and close several schools. Last year, St. Thomas the Apostle School closed, and Holy Rosary merged with St. Helena School to form a new school, Pope John Paul II. In 2007, St. Hedwig's merged with St. Matthew School.
Last spring, the diocese announced a $6 million campaign to raise endowment funds for tuition assistance. The campaign, called Vision for the Future 2008, is expected to provide an additional $300,000 yearly in tuition assistance. The new fund will be added to the existing Vision for the Future Education Fund, established in the early 1990s, which has provided more than $5.8 million in tuition assistance.
"There really is an important role for Catholic education in our community, and our responsibility is to see that it continues," said Weaver, diocese superintendent.
Some parishioners believe the diocese should form more regional schools such as Christ the Teacher, which is supported by four parishes instead of one. Christ the Teacher, which opened in 2002, has had a waiting list for several years.
"Our situation at Christ the Teacher is an extremely blessed one. There has been a strong demand for the school since it opened," said Dave Carey, whose three children attend the K-8 school. "I was on a waiting list for two years."
Finding a balance
For smaller private schools, the slightest decline in enrollment can be catastrophic.
If five of 65 students don't return in the fall, the budget will take a hit, said McCrae Harrison, director of Elementary Workshop.
"Any loss in families is disruptive to us," she said. "We could retool and downsize, but you worry about keeping your staff who are part of the family. And you worry about the quality of the program because you may not have the tuition to support specific programs. We are already a pretty bare-boned operation here with pretty low tuition."
Even when the economy improves, private schools will still have work to do, Harrison said.
"You have to find your clientele and build your student base back up to where it was, which takes a while. So it's not going to be over for us once the economic downturn is over," she said.
Greenwood Mennonite School's enrollment dropped from 282 students in 2005 to 195 this year. Assistant Principal Mickey Chaffinch anticipates a further decline in the fall.
When the school decided to cut recess aides and tutors from its budget, parents volunteered to fill those positions. When the $4,100-a-year K-12 school's janitor was facing a pay cut, an anonymous community member offered to pay half the salary. And when the school was going to have to hold off opening a computer program, a parent donated $10,000.
"It's been a year where there's been so many challenges, but the way people have stepped up to help our school has been amazing," Chaffinch said.
Some schools are not increasing tuition next year and are even decreasing tuition in certain grades.
Caravel Academy in Bear lowered tuition for preschool and kindergarten, said Head of School Donald Keister.
Milford Christian School will not be increasing its tuition.
"I think that [increasing tuition] would be shooting myself in the foot. We have to make things work without increasing tuition," said Principal David Perdue
About 20 percent of students receive financial aid at both Tatnall and Wilmington Friends School -- Delaware's oldest private school with a tuition ranging from $10,575 to $19,775.
"We are seeing more requests from people who had not applied for financial aid in the past. They may be facing a job loss or a pay cut or no raise or maybe some of their investments have taken a hit during all this," said Morgan, Tatnall's spokesman. "There's no way anyone is escaping this. These are tough times."
While Tatnall officials will not know their final enrollment for next year until later this spring, the preschool-through-12th grade school has received more new applications than it had this time last year.
"In some cases, education is a priority for a lot of parents, so they will certainly let other things go before their kids' education," Morgan said.
One of those parents is Kelly Furman.
After touring the public and private schools in Wilmington, Furman and her husband, who both work in Delaware's banking industry, chose to send their two children to Elementary Workshop because of the Montessori teaching method.
"It's so nurturing and warm. My children love to learn now," Furman said.
Furman said they would sell a car and cancel their summer vacation before pulling their children out of Elementary Workshop.
"We feel so strongly about where our children go to school that tuition will be one of the last things to go," she said. "I never thought I'd pay more for my children's elementary education than I paid for my own college education, but that's how important I think it is."