Call it another casualty of the recession.
Fewer Pinellas County parents are sending their children to private schools than in nearly a decade.
"It's all tied to the economy," said Skardon Bliss, executive director of the Florida Council of Independent Schools. "It's a question of, do we have enough families that can afford to pay $10,000, $12,000, $14,000 a year for private education?"
Not as many families as there were just a few years ago, it appears.
Pinellas private school enrollment in 2007-08 dropped to its lowest level since the late 1990s, according to numbers reported by private schools to the Florida Department of Education.
In just a year, from fall 2006 to fall 2007, private school enrollment in Pinellas has dropped nearly 10 percent, from 19,191 students to 17,296. Since private school enrollment peaked in 2004, with 21,475 students, the number has dropped 20 percent.
Nearly every large Pinellas private school saw enrollment slip last year.
Grace Lutheran School in St. Petersburg has lost 29 percent of its students over the past two years, going from 346 students in 2006 to 245 students in 2008.
"The major emphasis seems to be loss of jobs and transferring out of state to find employment," principal Mary Lou Wells said. "Economically, because costs have increased in insurance and other factors, parents feel like they cannot make their budget meet that cost of private schooling."
In response, the school has cut some staff, eliminated one class per grade level and is offering unendowed scholarships for the first time.
"It's an advantage to both of us, because we are filling the seat and, at the same time, allowing the student to get the education they desire," Wells said.
How many more seats will be empty by the start of the 2009-10 school year is hard to say, but a survey in the fall by the Florida Council of Independent Schools, a statewide accrediting agency, projected a statewide enrollment decline of an additional 4 percent next year, Bliss said.
But the numbers may be a little misleading, Bliss said. Most of the students attending private schools this year were registered last spring, before the economy took its hardest hits.
"The unknown, of course, is what happens with re-enrollment this spring," Bliss said.
The decrease mirrors the loss of Pinellas public school enrollment, which has been attributed in part to families with school-age children moving out of state. But it's also because fewer people are moving into the state, Bliss said.
The slip is affecting Pinellas private schools across the board — secular, religious, college preparatory, nonprofit and for-profit.
At Northside Christian School in St. Petersburg, enrollment has dropped from 812 students in 2006 to 756 students in 2008. The pre-K-12 school has retained most of its longtime students but is having trouble filling elementary spots, said Tessa Madasz, director of advancement.
To Madasz, it appears more parents are sending their children to public fundamental or magnet programs for elementary schools to save money.
Northside focused its fundraising efforts this year on tuition assistance, a move that Madasz said she hopes will help struggling parents keep their kids at Northside.
"I have had two parents come in this week and say they have lost their jobs and they want to keep their children here, so what can they do?" Madasz said.
Increasing financial aid is one of the best measures to retain students during a recession, said Patrick Bassett, president of the National Association of Independent Schools.
Overall, private school enrollment nationwide remained steady this year, Bassett said.
So, where are Pinellas' private school students going?
Some are transferring into public schools. In 2004-05, 3,656 students left private schools and entered Pinellas public schools. In 2007-08, that number was up to 5,346. (The data is unclear on whether students transferred from private schools in Pinellas or elsewhere.)
Some are being homeschooled. Enrollment at Allendale Academy in Clearwater, a homeschool umbrella organization that provides curriculum and other resources, has increased 50 percent over the past two years, from 594 students in 2006 to 892 students in 2008.
Director Patricia Carter said financial constraints have brought an influx of students from private schools lately, a reversal of years past, when most new homeschoolers came to Allendale from public schools.
Shifting responsibilities may be part of the reason. Parents laid off from their jobs suddenly find themselves with extra time, and less money for tuition.
Officials with state and national accrediting agencies said they are optimistic that enrollment will climb as the economy strengthens. Research has shown that recessions don't have long-term effects on private school enrollment, said Myra McGovern, director of public relations for the National Association of Independent Schools.
Rita Farlow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4162.