With declining enrollment and increasing requests for financial aid, South Sound private schools are feeling the impact of a sluggish economy.
While the schools are relying on increased fundraising efforts, they are also using delayed maintenance projects, higher dependence on donors and more grant applications, among other things, to make it through tough times.
Private school enrollment statewide declined 8 percent to 10 percent this year, according to Judy Jennings, executive director of the Washington Federation of Independent Schools. “Parents have been waiting for the other shoe to fall in the economy.”
Local private schools followed the statewide trend of shrinking entering classes, particularly for elementary grade levels. Those that did not experience enrollment dips attributed the consistent numbers to increased financial aid.
Last year, Bellarmine Preparatory School doled out $1.6 million in financial aid to about 270 of 985 students, according to president Jack Peterson. In 2009-2010, the school could bump that figure to as high as $2 million.
“We just bit the bullet and asked, ‘Would we rather run a deficit because we gave out more financial aid or because enrollment declined?’ We wanted to keep families here,” Peterson said.
Most of Bellarmine’s financial aid is funded by endowments, which are shrinking due to the slow investment market. “Our endowment is going from $900,000 to $500,000, and our financial aid is potentially up $400,000,” Peterson said. “It’s a double hit.”
Paul Bethke, executive director of Concordia Lutheran School in Tacoma, said that enrollment has fallen 15 percent from last year at the pre-kindergarten to eighth-grade school, while the number of financial aid requests has tripled compared with three years ago. There are 280 students enrolled at Concordia Lutheran, and 120 students at its associate, Mount Rainier Lutheran High School.
“I’ve been in education for 35 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Bethke said, noting that families are also delaying enrollment until late August or even early September. “We used to be full by March, with waiting lists.”
Cascade Christian Schools, which serves 2,000 students in five schools across Pierce County, has seen a 7 percent decrease in its elementary enrollment and a 25 percent increase in financial aid requests, according to Superintendent Don Johnson. “The elementary grades are where people seem to be a little more hesitant,” he said. “You have younger families making some tough decisions.”
Tuition costs vary widely across independent and parochial schools. At the upper end is Charles Wright Academy, where kindergarten through fifth-grade schooling fees run $17,785 per year. Families of sixth- through twelfth-graders can expect to pay $19,450 to $20,125. The Seabury School in Northeast Tacoma charges about $13,000 for kindergarten through fifth-grade tuition, and $15,000 for middle schoolers. Visitation Catholic School in Tacoma’s South End costs $5,150 for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
To compensate for diminishing enrollment and increased financial aid, private schools are embarking on a variety of cost-cutting measures.
To close up a $200,000 budget shortfall, Concordia Lutheran School will shelve the development of a satellite campus in Bonney Lake. “We have the land, but in light of the economy and our other financial needs, we’ve temporarily put the capital campaign for that on hold,” Bethke said.
Bellarmine has eliminated two non-teaching staff positions and deferred several maintenance projects, such as redoing roofs.
Teachers at Tacoma Baptist School and New Hope Christian School in Graham will be taking on more paraprofessional duties, such as supervising students during recess. Previously, teachers used lunch and recess times to prepare lessons and work with individual students.
Visitation Catholic School began a fundraising incentive program last year, in which parents pledged to raise a certain amount, which would then be taken out of their tuition bill.
“Some families did such a great job that they didn’t have to pay tuition in May and June,” principal Sheila Harrison said. “It increases our funds and takes pressure off of parents’ pockets.”
Parochial schools also receive support from their associated parishes. “We’ve been blessed with strong parish support,” Harrison said, adding that the school is sponsored by four parishes: Visitation, St. Ann, Sacred Heart and St. John of the Woods, which give $500 per year for every student from their church.
University Place’s Heritage Christian School, which does not offer financial aid other than a discount for children of pastors, had a different approach to fundraising.
“It’s mostly been prayer, to be honest,” principal Glenn Fisher said. “We believe that for the parents here, God will provide what they need to stay.” Heritage Christian is also considering postponing building repairs for the upcoming school year.
SOME SCHOOLS THRIVING
A few schools, however, are thriving in the tough economic environment.
Charles Wright Academy, which expects over 700 students this year, has not seen significant increase in the number of families asking for financial aid, according to spokesperson Althea Cawley-Murphree.
“The school is in the best financial state it’s ever been in,” Cawley-Murphree said, adding that the academy successfully ran a major capital campaign last year, raising $8 million for a $12 million language and performing arts center, which opened Wednesday.
“We don’t have a huge backlog of delayed maintenance, we have reserves established, we didn’t lay anyone off,” Cawley-Murphree said.
The only cost-cutting measure was that teachers and staff did not receive a pay raise this year.
The Seabury School in Northeast Tacoma, which caters to gifted children from pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, opens a new campus Wednesday in downtown Tacoma. The 925 Court C location begins with 14 sixth- and seventh-graders, and it will expand to eighth grade next year.
Head of School Sandi Wollum acknowledged the difficulty of starting a new campus in a grim economic year. “It’s certainly a stretch; we’ve had to find additional resources,” she said.
However, the junior high campus has “allowed us to expand the number of kids that we serve, so it’s had a big impact on our retention of current students.”
The Seabury School draws students from Gig Harbor, Kent, Puyallup and Graham, and having more grade offerings will allow parents to keep multiple children at the same school.
Martha Everett of Tacoma is one of those parents. Her older son, Paul, will be starting seventh grade at the downtown campus, and her younger son, Nathan, is an incoming second-grader.
Despite worries about the economy, Everett said that Seabury provided the ideal social environment for her sons: The school offers a plethora of extracurricular activities for Paul, an avid inline-skating “jock geek,” and an invigorating classroom environment for inquisitive Nathan.
Although the family does not request financial aid, Everett, a psychologist practicing in Des Moines, and her husband Michael, a helicopter pilot, make daily sacrifices to keep their sons in private school.
“A lot of shopping at Costco, a lot of hand-me down equipment, like bikes,” Everett said. The family restricts vacations to a big trip to Disneyland every four years, and “as a couple we don’t go out a whole lot. I bring my lunch into work every day.”
Joyce Chen: 253-597-8426