Private schools feeling economic slowdown

Enrollments flat, budgets tight, but BRAC could drive upswing

August 31, 2008|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Harford Friends School planned to add first grade this academic year.

School officials were looking for four to six students to make up the inaugural class but didn't meet their goal, said Jonathan Huxtable, head of the school.

"Only two parents enrolled their children," said Huxtable, who started the school in 2005 in Darlington. "We kind of knew with the economy being so bad, it would be tough. We postponed the addition of first grade until next year."

Despite the low turnout for first grade, the school's middle school program is bucking national trends with increased enrollment, Huxtable said.

However, other private schools in the county haven't been so fortunate. With high gas prices, a growing number of home foreclosures and higher unemployment rates, families are opting to send their children to free public schools.

John Carroll School, the largest private high school in the county, opened its doors to 840 students this year, down from 869 last year, said Paul Barker, who is in his eighth year as principal at the Roman Catholic school.

"We made our enrollment goal this year," Barker said. "But we have a capacity for up to 900 students. It would have been nice to have 850 students. We have no fat on our budget at all. We'll have to be really tight with spending this year."

To help meet budget needs, the school raised tuition from $11,450 to $12,350 for the 2008-2009 school year, Barker said. However, need-based financial aid awards are offered to help parents cover the costs of tuition, he said.

On average, about one-third of the students at John Carroll receive financial aid. But for some families, the financial aid is not nearly enough.

Barker attributed the decreasing enrollment to the decline in the number of middle school students in the county and the ailing economy.

"It's no secret that the economy is hurting private schools," he said. "But we can't predict the prolonged effect of the poor economy on our school's enrollment. And so far, the BRAC realignment [the nationwide military base reorganization] has not had a great influence on enrollment. But we've been told that things will pick up in two years."

However, some county public schools have reported an influx of children in their schools resulting from BRAC.

Patterson Mill Middle/High School is a prime example. It has more than 130 new students enrolled this year, 36 of them related to the military realignment, said Principal Wayne Thibeault.

At the high school level, there were 46 new students, including 13 children from parochial and private schools, 21 who transferred into the school from other county schools, and 12 BRAC-related students, Thibeault said.

Ninety new students enrolled in middle school, including 18 students who transferred from private and parochial schools, 50 students who transferred from other public schools in the county and 22 students related to BRAC, he said.

"We have definitely started to see the impact of BRAC," Thibeault said. "Surprisingly, they are not all coming from New Jersey. We have kids coming from Florida and Texas who say they are here because of base realignment and their [parent's] job has been transferred here."

Harford Friends School also saw an increase from 19 middle school students last year to 28 students this year, said Huxtable.

Despite the increase in the number of students in the middle school, tuition increased from $9,600 to $10,400 this year. About 32 percent of the school's students received financial aid, with an average award of $3,600, he said.

In addition to the economy, the late selection of a first-grade teacher played a role in the lack of first-grade applicants, Huxtable said.

"We weren't in any hurry to choose a teacher," he said. "We wanted to find the best teacher for the job. The problem is that the teacher wasn't chosen until late May, and parents like to meet the teacher and know who will be teaching their children."

However, the growing economic woes are keeping enrollment in the county's 54 public schools about the same each year, as families feeling the pinch of the economy opt to put children in public schools.

Official enrollment figures for the school district won't be disclosed until Sept. 30 because of attrition and student mobility during the first month of school. As of Aug. 20, there were 38,045 students enrolled, said Teri D. Kranefeld, manager of communications for the county's public school system.

And although 56 teaching positions were eliminated through attrition, 35 new teaching slots were added, Kranefeld said.

Some private schools weren't as hard hit by decreasing enrollments.

St. Margaret's School in Bel Air had a decrease in enrollment of 25 students, down from 875 in the 2007-2008 school year, said Cecilia Pleiss, the school's admissions director.

However, the school's budget is not enrollment-based, so the number of children attending does not greatly affect how much is budgeted each year, she said. Their tuition increased only to cover the rise in the cost of living, and it was minimal, she said.

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