ST. PETE BEACH
When St. John Vianney Catholic School hit an enrollment low last school year, principal Kristy Swol did the unthinkable: She laid off a teacher.
So Swol and the rest of the school's community — parents, teachers and parishioners — decided to do something drastic to help recruit students.
They lowered tuition.
"This feels like the right thing to do," Swol said. "We don't want people to not figure out a way."
Amid the recession and general decline in Catholic school enrollment, St. John is bucking the trend. It started the school year with 59 new students — 40 of them on tuition assistance — boosting enrollment to 207 students.
Like many private schools around the country, this small school started seeing its enrollment numbers slide about a couple of years ago, echoing a trend among Catholic schools nationwide.
"We saw the same thing," Swol said. "With the economy, nobody can afford Catholic school."
From 2003-04 through 2008-09, Catholic school enrollment nationwide fell by roughly 11.7 percent, to about 2.2 million students, according to the National Catholic Education Association.
The St. Petersburg diocese, which covers Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Citrus and Hernando counties, reported a decline of 14.8 percent enrollment those years, from 13,859 to 11,809 students, said Frank Murphy, diocese spokesman.
The diocese oversees 26 kindergarten through eighth-grade schools and four high schools.
So far, three other diocese schools besides St. John saw a small rise in enrollment this school year, Murphy said, but none employed a tactic as aggressive as St. John.
In 2008-09, annual fees to attend St. John were $5,200, and that included tuition. This year, the school managed to pare the fees to $4,300, Swol said, and is planning to drop that further to $4,100 next school year.
At the same time, the school stepped up its fundraising, collecting $300,000 to help students with tuition. The school also advised and helped parents seek scholarships.
That's what Lisa Lennen did for her 14-year-old son, Myles Bobenhausen.
Lennen applied for, and received, a Step Up for Students state scholarship of $3,950. The program awards up to that amount in private school tuition to eligible low-income students.
The school also helped Lennen make other financial arrangements.
"I didn't think private school was an option for us because of cost," said Lennen, 56.
For some parents, it's a matter of choice and priority, said Maria Smith, 44. Her two sons Steven, in fourth grade, and Capron, in eighth grade, attend St. John.
Like other parents who pay the full fees, she appreciates the lowered tuition.
"It's a matter of saving and keeping it aside until tuition is due," Smith said. "St. John does an enormous amount of fundraising to keep tuition from increasing as well."
The diocese, as a whole, is making education — and helping more students financially — a top priority, Murphy said.
"We're going to hold steady and expand tuition assistance to help more families," he said. "If families get some help in this difficult economic time, that will really make a difference."