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Private schools adjust to keep up with changing needs

Private school enrollment has been declining in Pinellas County, but if you talk to leaders of Countryside Christian Academy, you'll hear of a different trend.

Administrator Crystal Mascaro says enrollment has gone up in each of the seven years she has led Countryside Christian, and next year the school hopes to welcome 10 students in a new high school program.

When asked why this Christian school keeps growing, Mascaro gives a one-word answer: "God."

But like many private school leaders in Pinellas County, she said administrators are constantly looking for ways to fine-tune what the school offers, and brainstorm new ideas that fill needs. "Every year we tweak our program," she said. "We notice our strengths, our weaknesses."

These are not the easiest times for private schools. Most parents are still hurting from the slow economy, and tuition can burden them even in good years.

Florida Department of Education records show private school enrollment has generally declined in the past decade, slipping from 377,701 in the 2002-03 academic year to 316,745 last year, a drop of 16.1 percent. However last year's level ticked up 3.6 percent higher than the year before.

It's a similar story in Pinellas County, where private school enrollment slid from 21,180 in the 2002-03 academic year to 15,236 last year, a drop of 28 percent.

So private schools have been trying to market themselves to Pinellas County's parents by focusing on their highlights. Countryside Christian's parents like the moral teaching that kids get from the school, which comes out in daily Bible classes, Mascaro said.

Nearby, Calvary Christian High School is defying the trend of dropping enrollment. In the 2010-11 academic year, the school had 200 students. Next year, enrollment is projected to be at 360, said administrator David Kilgore. He said the school emphasizes four areas: academics, arts, athletics and spiritual life. Calvary also has worked to build ties with K-8 schools, and it offers elective courses to homeschooled and other part-time students, he said.

At Palm Harbor Montessori School, many parents are enthused about the school's use of the Montessori method, which offers curriculum tailored to an individual child's needs. So a fourth-grade student can keep studying fourth-grade English if that's appropriate for her, but also go into sixth- or seventh-grade math if she proves adept at it.

"We are a true Montessori school; we follow the philosophy very closely," said Carol Mercier, assistant head of school.

Students also like the school's swimming pool and the 5-acre spread at its Palm Harbor campus, Mercier said. The school also has an East Lake campus.

Some private schools have closed in recent years. That may be one reason enrollment has stayed high at St. Petersburg's Shorecrest Preparatory School, which welcomed some of those students in.

Shorecrest stays popular as one of the best-known private schools in the Tampa Bay area. It has a 100 percent college acceptance rate and each year posts "a real phenomenal list" of top colleges where Shorecrest graduates gain acceptance, said Diana Whittle, the school's director of marketing and communications.

Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8232.

Private schools adjust to keep up with changing needs 01/12/13 [Last modified: Friday, January 11, 2013 4:22pm]

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