Despite the worst recession in modern history, Carrollwood Day School has found a way to thrive.
In January, school leaders unveiled a middle and high school housed in the former Idlewild Baptist Church sanctuary at 1515 W Bearss Ave.
The renovated two-story building holds 376 students and features an 800-seat theater and some 46 classrooms, including science labs and a fine arts studio.
The sprawling, 37 1/2-acre campus also has a new elementary school that features 25 classrooms outfitted with computers, a library, and multipurpose room for 314 students.
Carrollwood Day started a $10 million capital campaign to fund the expansion in 2007 as the economy started to tank. Through a grant, loans, private donations and a lot of determination, parents, teachers and staff have raised more than $3 million toward expansion costs.
The school is current on its $17 million in debt, which includes $10 million for the new elementary school and renovations and $7 million in other obligations.
It's an investment, say school officials, that has paid off.
Statewide, private schools on average continue to lose students every year to tuition-free charter schools and public schools.
But Carrollwood Day School and other private schools in Hillsborough County mirror a national trend with slow and steady growth.
Even with a shaky economy, "We didn't lose kids,'' said Carrollwood Day marketing director Shannon Gauthier. "We actually gained a few. We just didn't gain them as fast.''
There were four administrative positions cut last fall due to an office reorganization, but five teaching positions were added. For the 2012-13 school year, there will be three teaching positions added.
In Florida, private school enrollment dropped from 381,346 students in 2003-04 to 305,825 in 2010-11, according to figures compiled by the state Department of Education.
Countywide, private school enrollment fell from 21,643 in 2006-07 to 17,084 the following year, but has largely climbed ever since to 19,473 in 2010-11.
Local private school operators say they expect the trend to continue.
"We're seeing a banner year,'' said Dennis Facciolo, admissions director at Tampa Preparatory School.
The school has 600 students with room for another 40 and a waiting list of 51 for next year's sixth and ninth grades — the most popular grades.
But at the height of the recession around 2008, enrollment dropped by 8 percent, Facciolo said.
"Usually, if you lose less than 4 percent, you're all right,'' he said.
Some parents moved their children to public schools for a year or two, until the economy improved or their financial situation changed. Others turned to the school's $1.2 million in grants for needy students to keep them at Tampa Prep.
"I think the families that got hit the most were the middle class families,'' Facciolo said.
The need-based grant fund at Jesuit High School is at an all-time high at $1.3 million, with 25 percent of the school's 730 boys relying on the assistance to help pay their tuition, said admissions director Steve Matesich.
Even with a recession, the 113-year-old school, a tradition for generations of Tampa families, "pretty much stayed at capacity,'' he said.
Next year looks even better due to a huge spike in enrollment applications, Matesich said. For example, some 500 incoming freshmen are competing for 200 spots.
At Carrollwood Day School, where the 2012-13 tuition ranges from $10,900 for kindergarteners to $15,950 for high schoolers, "everyone is sacrificing something to have their children here,'' Gauthier said. "It's a choice you make.''
Some parents choose the school for its prestigious International Baccalaureate program from the primary years through high school.
Others like that they can send their kids to the same school throughout their education. Carrollwood Day School boasts an early childhood center at 12606 Casey Road in northwest Tampa for another 150 students, from toddlers to kindergarten.
"We're a one-stop shop,'' Gauthier said.
Still others want their children to go to the same school they did. After 30 years, the little school that started in a storefront now educates second and third generation students.
"I think since we've been a school, we've been a family,'' said Trudi Buscemi, an elementary and middle school math teacher who has worked at Carrollwood Day for 25 years.
"I think for our parents to give it up, it's like leaving a part of their family.''