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Improving economy, scholarships help Hernando private schools increase enrollment

Hernando Christian Academy leader Ken Alvarez says school rolls are creeping back up.

Hernando Christian Academy leader Ken Alvarez says school rolls are creeping back up.

Just a few years ago, the future of Hernando Christian Academy didn't look so rosy.

In the midst of a recession that brought double-digit unemployment to Hernando County, enrollment at the private Brooksville school plummeted. In just three years, the number of students shrank by more than half, dropping from 430 to 205 by the 2010-11 school year. The school's board of directors entertained the idea of shuttering the doors.

"We had to cut probably 50 percent of our personnel," said superintendent Ken Alvarez.

But the downward trend stopped. And the school stayed open.

Now, with the economy rebounding and a greater awareness of scholarship opportunities, enrollment has begun to creep back up.

"We're headed back," said Alvarez. "But we're still a pretty good ways from where we were before the economic downturn."

After facing uncertain economic times in recent years, Hernando County's other private schools find themselves in a similar position, with most reporting slight increases or steady enrollment numbers for the 2013-14 school year. Meanwhile, the Hernando County School District has seen four consecutive years of slight contraction.

One major factor in student growth that private school administrators cite: greater awareness of Florida's scholarship program for children from low-income families.

The number of students attending private schools on tax-credit scholarships is at an all-time high in Hernando, according to Step Up for Students, the nonprofit organization that administers the scholarships.

As of early September, just more than 500 students in Hernando received the scholarship, up from 376 the previous year.

That's an increase of roughly 35 percent, the highest yearly jump in the Tampa Bay area.

Alvarez credits the scholarship, along with the McKay scholarships for disabled students, with boosting enrollment.

"They've afforded a lot more families the opportunity to go to private schools," he said.

This year, the school's enrollment is at 238. It was 225 last year and 217 the year before.

Alvarez says the school, which also attracts a number of international students, offers small class sizes and a strong educational environment.

"The people involved in the school really have a love for the school and treat each other well," he said. "It's a real inclusive-type atmosphere."

Deacon Scott Conway, principal at Notre Dame Catholic School in Spring Hill, says his school also has received a boost from the need-based scholarship.

"This has really opened doors for (students) that never would have been available before," Conway said.

The school has seen growth in enrollment in recent years, hitting 230 students — which is close to capacity — this school year.

More than 50 students at Notre Dame are on scholarship, Conway said.

"It's a wonderful opportunity," he said.

The school had hovered around 160 students during the height of the recession, with many families unable to afford a private school education.

Marti Covert, the administrator at West Hernando Christian School in Spring Hill, said the school's enrollment has remained steady at about 260 students.

"We're very surprised that we did not see a decline," Covert said.

Wider Horizons School co-director Julie Maglio said enrollment at the Spring Hill school has been steady in recent years, after a decline when the housing bubble burst.

Contact Danny Valentine at dvalentine@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.

Improving economy, scholarships help Hernando private schools increase enrollment 10/08/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 8, 2013 7:10pm]

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