Good times for private schools

The Education Beat

Surge: With every perception that public systems are declining, enrollments at independent institutions increase, despite high tuitions. Some are uncomfortable with that.

June 23, 1999|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

EVERYTHING'S coming up roses for private schools -- for some reasons that make the people who run them uncomfortable.

One of those people is Sarah Ann M. Donnelly, who retires this month after 20 years as executive director of the Association of Independent Maryland Schools (AIMS).

Despite break-the-bank tuitions, enrollment is surging as boomers' kids flock to independent schools. Almost all the 104 members of AIMS have waiting lists. Construction of buildings and additions proceeds at a dizzying pace. The schools are raising money and padding endowments. A few are on the leading edge of the technology revolution.

"This is the perfect moment to retire," says Donnelly, 62, who became the first full-time director of AIMS in 1979 with a desk, a manual typewriter, a telephone and a two-drawer file cabinet. This month she moved her staff of six to a spacious suite in an office park next to Interstate 97 in Glen Burnie.

So why is she uncomfortable? Because private schools' gain is public schools' loss.

"The perception of public schools continues to decline," Donnelly says. "I don't know if that's justified, but the press covers the bad news. Littleton, Colo., was such a tragedy, but it meant people are knocking down our doors."

Independent schools can't guarantee safety, Donnelly says, "and we reflect society just like everyone else. But we're small, and kids don't hide behind pillars with us. Those who are seriously troubled become known to their faculty and known to their peers."

Parents always have sent their children to private schools for discipline, says Donnelly. "Now more and more are sending their kids for safety, and that's one of the big changes in my 20 years."

Another change, Donnelly says, is private schools' intensified search for diversity. Minority enrollment among the 38,500 students in Maryland independent schools is 17 percent, and half of those are African-American. "Many of our schools are far more diverse than nearby public schools," Donnelly says.

Though private schools are spending a record amount on financial aid -- $30.8 million last year on scholarships for 6,600 kids -- only a third of minority students require financial aid.

"That's a startling figure," says Donnelly, "because most people assume that particularly the African-Americans are there on financial aid. But we're attracting large numbers of professional minority families."

Private schools are having a "much harder time attracting teachers of color," Donnelly says. Though instructors' salaries have increased (with tuition), private schools can't compete.

The median salary of Maryland independent school teachers is about $33,000, says Donnelly. That's about $8,000 less than the Maryland public school average and $30,000 less than the median pay of computer systems analysts.

Mixed emotions about public schools carry over to testing and vouchers, says the AIMS executive director. Last year and the year before, 20 AIMS schools voluntarily (and quietly) administered the Maryland public school performance tests, with the encouragement of state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

"Our kids did beautifully, without any training whatsoever," says Donnelly. "The tests were simply dropped in in May to see how independent school students would do. We deliberately maintained confidentiality about the results. We didn't want to be seen as bragging."

On vouchers, also mixed emotions, but on the negative side: "We don't want any government control. That's the bottom line. First, there'll never be enough money in a voucher to meet our tuitions. We don't want our tuitions dictated by a voucher program, and we don't want to see any money taken from the public schools.

"And second, we don't want any outside agency to tell us whom to admit. We have got to have complete control of our admissions process. That's the definition of an independent school. We are not meant to be all things to all people, like the public schools."

Besides, Donnelly adds, private schools have little room for the bearers of vouchers.

She'll be succeeded July 1 by Ronald Goldblatt, head of the Key School in Annapolis.

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