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Enrollment at area private schools holds steady despite recession

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 31, 2009 - The tough financial situation has taught local schools an interesting lesson in economics, but it's not necessarily the one they expected.

With household budgets getting tighter, tuition for private or parochial schools might be one of the first places that families look to cut. Yet with the first day of classes only a few weeks away, schools in the area say big changes in enrollment -- drops for private schools, increases for public ones -- are not materializing.

"We sort of anticipated it at the beginning of the summer, so we asked various schools if they could give us a heads up," said Susie Dielmann, director of communications at the Ladue School District of the expectation of a surge in enrollment from students who might be leaving the 16 non-public schools in the district's boundaries.

"Quite honestly, we haven't seen it."

The surprise works both ways. Dave Nowak, spokesman at MICDS, said they worked last year to prepare for what might happen, but the enrollment scenarios they forecast didn't happen.

"When we were looking at the economic situation," he said, "we went into our budget cycle with three different budget projections -- slight decrease, not-so-slight decrease and what happens if the bottom drops out."

At this point, he said, the number of students expected to show up for classes this fall is down about 2 percent, to just shy of 1,200.

At John Burroughs, head of school Andy Abbott had a similar report.

"The economy has not hurt our enrollment at all," he said. "Burroughs is still full at every grade. We did have more requests for financial aid, so we have felt it that way. And our endowment, like everybody's endowment, has dropped a little bit. But as far as enrollment, we have been fortunate."

No one is quite sure why dramatic enrollment changes have not occurred. Nationwide, the drop for private schools seems to be 3-6 percent, according to Jeff Burnett, vice president for government relations at the National Association for Independent Schools in Washington.

But, he added, the numbers are still imprecise, and they vary from one part of the country to another.

The private schools cite their reputation as one big reason that families keep sending their children there even when times are tough. But they admit that even some of those families may need a little more help in paying the tuition bills. Nationally, Burnett said, applications for financial aid have risen 20-25 percent.

At Burroughs, Abbott says the scholarship budget has gone up and should be able to cover most of the increase in aid requests. With tuition at $20,400, he said, the average award is $14,500, with the school spending $1,786,000 in aid for 123 students.

At MICDS -- where tuition ranges from $16,000 in the lower grades to $20,000 for the high school -- numbers are similar, with the 21 percent of students on some sort of aid expected to rise by a point or two this year.

"Our admissions office has worked very, very hard to work individually with families to help accommodate them and meet their needs," Nowak said.

"Our school has a long history, and we have a lot of legacy families who have sent their students to either Mary Institute, Country Day or now MICDS. We also have a great relationship with our feeder schools."

At the 148 Catholic schools in the system of the St. Louis Archdiocese, firm enrollment numbers won't be available until the first week or two in September, Superintendent George Henry said. The last school year ended with close to 48,000 students in elementary and secondary classrooms in an 11-county area.

This year, he said, with a few schools closing, he is hoping that number doesn't drop by more than 1,500 students or so, continuing a trend of shrinking enrollments that has gone on for several years.

"I'm as anxious as you are to know those numbers," Henry said. "That's a significant indicator for us. If we could hold it to around a 3 percent decline, I would be very pleased in this particular climate.

"A lot of parents still haven't made decisions yet on where their students are going to go. Some are still waiting to see what their job situation will be. I would hope the efforts we have been promoting the last couple of years will make any loss of enrollment as small as possible."

Public schools are seeing some effect from the economy, but it's not great there either.

In Clayton, where between 88 percent and 92 percent of the resident students already attend class in the district, enrollment is expected to be flat for the next couple of years. But spokesman Chris Tennill said an increase is coming in one area where it was not anticipated -- students who live elsewhere but pay tuition to attend Clayton schools.

Generally, he said, 12-18 students take part in the program; in the coming year, that number already is closer to 30, coming from private, parochial and other public schools. The tuition is $9,750 for grades kindergarten through five and $14,800 for the upper grades.

In Parkway, where enrollment has been going down about 200 students a year over the past 10 years, the trend is flattening out and may be even going the other way. Spokesman Paul Tandy said that last year, the district had 196 students who transferred from non-public schools, but for the coming school year, it already has 240 students.

Much of the increase, he said, is coming from homes along the Highway 40 corridor, in the areas that feed into Parkway Central and Parkway West high school.

Even if that trend holds up, he said, operations in the district are not expected to be significantly affected.

"We would maintain our class sizes," Tandy said. "We're committed to that. We always have a few schools at the beginning of the school year on the bubble, where one student would mean we would have to hire another teacher. We could absorb the increase. A couple of hundred students spread out over 28 schools is not that dramatic."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.