Last year, the news was grim.
"Private school enrollment tumbles," the headline read. With the economy in the tank and many parents losings jobs, the option of sending kids to private school became an axed luxury.
This year, though, the story has an edge of hope.
The Florida Council of Independent Schools, one of the nation's largest organizations of private schools, kept a keen watch on the enrollment figures at its 154 schools during the 2008-2009 school year. What they found was surprising. This time around, most students left the schools due to attrition — graduating, moving to Alaska — not because they couldn't afford to stay. Only 600 students in the state left freely.
The St. Petersburg Times talked to Skardon Bliss, executive director of the Tampa-based council, to find out why things changed.
So … what happened?
In talking with the schools, they did more aggressive marketing that cranked up their admission offices, got the word out as to what good schools they were. They also increased their financial aid budgets for children in the schools and new ones applying. They have a budget every year from which they offer financial aid. They cranked it up and basically took an approach that the colleges have been using for years of enrollment management. We were encouraging them to look at this procedure, too. If you have half a seat in your school that is paid vs. an empty seat, (the empty seat) doesn't do you a whole lot of good. You have to be in a position of negotiating with the families.
Why the change in approach?
The economy got everybody's attention. Everyone knew there were families that were losing their jobs.
Did certain areas suffer more?
For some reason, the preschools seem to be down a little more than the high schools and the middle schools. Part of the problem is that compulsory eduction is only required from the age of 5 and up, so for 3- and 4-year-olds, they can keep them home.
Did schools reduce tuition?
They didn't change or reduce tuition. Tuition determines what the faculty is paid, and you can't reduce people's salaries. They expect a raise, as a matter of fact. You have to figure out how to get your faculty a raise of any reasonable amount. They are employees like any other employees at any business, and they have health insurance and retirement accounts. Some of the schools were looking at reducing the amount of funds they're matching in retirement programs this year. If they did have a crisis, that is one of the areas they looked at. Also, if you had two aides in a class, you might have one aide now.
What should parents look for when choosing a private school?
The philosophy of the school. Is it an independent school, is it a Christian school, is it an Episcopal school? What is their mission? Are they a school that is preparing children for the most competitive high schools and the most competitive colleges? Are they accredited? Are they financially sound?
In this economy, why are private schools still a good choice?
What you want to do is have the school meet the needs of your children, whatever they may be. There are special-needs schools, schools that have college-prep programs. If you really want to meet the needs of your child, if you need a school which has small classes and more teachers, more adult role models, you need to be looking at all of those things. In many cases, private and independent schools might be it.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857.