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Lessons in survival

Computers, science labs and audio-visual equipment are the sort of goodies students thrive on these days. And St. Paul's School in Largo boasts them all. But this fall, you won't find any high school students tapping keyboards or lighting Bunsen burners on St. Paul's sprawling campus. The reason? St. Paul's ended the 6-year-old high school portion of its program a few weeks ago.

Pressed by debt and disappointing enrollment, officials of the 23-year-old independent Episcopal school decided to scrub the secondary program and focus on its traditional academic offering, preschool through eighth grade.

"It became clear," says Thomas duPont, chairman of St. Paul's board of trustees, "that the ability of the high school to sustain itself in the long term was very, very limited."

The St. Paul's retrenchment is part of a big _ and in some ways conflicting _ combination of events occurring among church-affiliated schools in the Tampa Bay area.

Some schools, like St. Paul's high school, are closing. Others are opening or expanding. Still others are changing their organizational structures to better cope with financial and competitive pressures.

And many religious schools are aggressively seeking new ways to compete in an era of economic decline, tighter donations, shifting demographics and tough-minded comparison shopping.

"Schools need to view themselves as a business in terms of image, marketing and public relations," says Barbara Bode, administrator of Tampa Baptist Academy.

While religious-affiliated schools come in a variety of sizes, formats, quality and theological bent, one thing is common to all: the changing dynamic of the education market.

As teacher salaries have risen in the public domain, private religious schools _ some of which start teachers at little more than $13,000 a year _ are under pressure to raise pay or lose good teachers.

And good teachers are only the beginning. For a school to be competitive, it often must have pricey equipment and specialized programs.

"Parents don't desire to pay for private education when the product is not superior," says Jerry Mann, the headmaster at Tampa's Seminole Presbyterian School, which will have about 760 students next year in its pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

Seminole Presbyterian recently added its high school program and subsequently completed a $2-million building that includes a gymnasium, science labs and fine arts and music facilities.

"When we decided to expand into the high school program," Mann says, "we felt if we weren't going to provide top-flight equipment for the faculty, to provide optimum teaching experiences, then we shouldn't do it at all."

How competitive is Florida's religious school market? Very.

Statewide, private schools _ more than half of which are religiously affiliated _ have been losing market share for years.

Non-public schools accounted for 10 percent of total Florida school enrollment in 1989-90, down from 12 percent in 1982-83, according to the Florida Department of Education.

Much of that decline in market share can be attributed to enrollment growth in the public schools. But that's not the whole story. Besides having a smaller share of the enrollment pie, private schools also have been experiencing a decline in the aggregate number of students enrolled.

Fewer than 198,000 students were enrolled in private schools in Florida in 1989-90; five years earlier, the total was more than 207,000. Patterson Lamb, coordinator of private education services for the state, says that when 1990-91 enrollment is tabulated, she expects the private school total to rise only about 1,000 _ still well below the mid-1980s figure.

For some religiously affiliated schools, the realities of supply and demand have become as clear as white chalk on a clean blackboard. St. Paul's is an example.

The school, which takes students from a variety of denominations, operates mainly on tuition and donations. But in 1985, school officials borrowed more than $1-million to begin the high school and refurbish St. Paul's elementary and middle school buildings, duPont says.

Predictions for the high school proved overly optimistic. School officials forecast a minimum enrollment of 120, duPont says, but "the best we ever did was around 80." The prospects of reaching 120 in the near future, he adds, were "not good."

Tuition for the high school ran $6,035 to $6,850 in 1990-91, depending on grade and payment schedule. That was in line with some of the area's most exclusive prep schools.

DuPont blames the disappointing enrollment on factors other than cost, however.

For one thing, competition for private school students is keen, he says, and the boundaries of the competition have expanded. "It's no longer onerous in the minds of parents to go all the way to Tampa to go to school," duPont says. "The community has gotten more cosmopolitan."

He also says, "Those who decided to create St. Paul's high school banked on a robust and growing Pinellas County, and maybe in the last few years we haven't been as robust and growing as they thought we would be."

Finally, duPont points to demographics _ an important consideration for any school planner. Dupont says, "We're looking at a flat population curve for high schools."

Growth projections in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties seem to bear out his point.

In Hillsborough, the number of 15- to 17-year-olds is projected to grow only 1 percent between 1990 and 1995, according to University of Florida data based on the 1980 census. That compares with a projected 11 percent growth spurt for the county's overall population. A rebound is seen later in the decade for the 15- to 17-year-old age group.

For Pinellas, the university projects a 3 percent population decline in the 15-17 age group from 1990 to 1995, with a rebound expected after that.

DuPont says St. Paul's now is focusing on paying down its debt and putting the preschool through eighth grade program, which had an enrollment of 267 this past year, on stronger footing.

"We have scaled the capability of the school to meet demand for next year, and we anticipate a full program, full student body and full faculty," he says. Still, he says, there will be empty classrooms and some unused equipment in the wake of the high school's closing.

St. Paul's is not the only school to trip on its optimism. Consider the former Community Christian School in Seminole, which was run by Community Bible Church and accommodated preschoolers through seniors in high school.

The Rev. Dennis Haverty, who became an elder of the church in the late 1970s and took over as pastor in November 1989, says the school's troubles began in the early 1980s, when the church borrowed heavily for a church- and school-related building addition.

Church officials planned on an enrollment increase to bring in enough tuition money to cover payments on the debt, Haverty says. But the new students failed to materialize, and the church congregation had to dig deep to keep the school going, he says. Other problems ensued, the church congregation shrank, and by 1984 the school was in financial straits, Haverty says.

"We were a week away from having to reorganize" under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code, he says.

A reprieve came, Haverty says, when a real estate agent contacted the church with an investor willing to buy the church and school property and lease it back to the church, relieving it of its debt payments. But in January, he says, the lease expired and the church could not exercise its option to buy back the property or renew the lease.

Community Bible Church survives _ it shares facilities with Cross Bayou Baptist Church in Seminole. The school closed in the spring of 1990 and reopened last September, legally separate from the church. It is incorporated as Community Christian Schools of Pinellas Inc. and run by a board consisting of "parents and Christian business people," Haverty says.

One practical benefit of the move, Haverty says: The new board has to run a balanced budget. "They wouldn't have anyone to fall back on," he says, "except the Lord, of course."

Sometimes religious schools close quietly.

Harvest Temple Christian School in Largo is closing its elementary and high schools at the end of this school year, school officials confirmed. Questions were referred to the Rev. Ken Maddox, who would not comment on the reason for the shutdown.

While some school officials have shut facilities, others see bright times ahead.

Consider the high school that Indian Rocks Baptist Church in Largo plans to open this fall, beginning with ninth grade.

Indian Rocks Baptist has operated a school for seven years, beginning with a preschool and kindergarten in 1984 and adding grades each year. The high school will begin this fall with 32 ninth-graders and expand from there, according to school officials. Total enrollment for Indian Rocks Christian Schools will be about 620 this fall.

Indian Rocks decided to start the high school because of demand from parents of its middle school students and because of an influx of students in the younger age groups, says Max Gessner, superintendent.

"What better time than (now) to phase in a high school the way we're doing it," he says.

Indian Rocks Christian Schools receives space rent-free from the church, school officials say. But, they say, the school operation, which has an annual budget of about $1.5-million, gets no direct financing from the church.

The new high school will have a marching band and football program, and the students will have access to the science and computer labs used by middle school students, officials say. Ninth grade tuition will run $1,980 a year.

"It's a very competitive market, no doubt about it," Gessner says. "But I think we're in a very strong position because our Christian philosophy is something a lot of people are looking for, and I think we have lot of the other ingredients people are looking for."

As some schools open and some close, others are adjusting to maintain their competitiveness in the private school market.

Bayshore Christian School, a 20-year-old evangelical Christian school in Tampa that offers programs for pre-kindergartners through 12th-graders, is taking several steps to deal with the changing economy, says Herman Valdes, the principal.

For one thing, he says, the school is looking to raise the student-teacher ratio in some classes _ a way of boosting productivity and holding down overhead. "We took an internal look at the total program, and (it) showed us that in some disciplines we had as few as 50 students for one teacher in the high school, so we really need to use that teacher's time more wisely," Valdes says.

In addition, Valdes says the school recently opened pre-kindergarten programs for 3- and 4-year-olds.

The move is designed partly to accommodate the needs of working parents, Valdes says, but the school benefits too.

Expanding the pre-kindergarten program brings more money into the school, thereby compensating for an expected enrollment dip in the upper grades, he says. It also builds a student clientele for future growth in Bayshore's elementary and high school programs, Valdes says.

Tuition at Bayshore Christian school runs $1,600 to $2,545, and the school, with an enrollment of about 350, takes students from a variety of church backgrounds.

Tampa Baptist Academy, a 34-year-old school that also serves students from a variety of religious backgrounds, recently added a string orchestra to its elementary program and plans to add a band to the high school _ both moves aimed at remaining competitive, says administrator Bode.

The school also has two employees working on development efforts that include fund-raising, marketing, public relations, student recruitment and data base management, she says.

While the school has been involved in development efforts for more than a decade, Bode says, it has stepped up the program in the past two years.

"There is an active market out there, and we have to effectively communicate who we are to the community. . . . We have a product and service to offer Christian families, and we need to get that out there to the public's eye," she says.

Not only that, she says, the school is trying to raise teacher salaries and renovate some of its facilities while keeping down tuition rates. Tuition runs $2,100 to $2,500 annually, Bode says. The school's enrollment in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade is about 550.

To accommodate enrollment growth, Bode says, Tampa Baptist Academy plans to add a new building, housing a gymnasium and classrooms, within the next two years. The structure will be financed through donations _ not debt _ Bode says.

The Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, with an enrollment of more than 12,500 students, also is adjusting to market forces.

The diocese has set up the Catholic Education Foundation Inc., which is building an endowment fund for Catholic education in the area.

The diocese also is expanding its use of "interparochial agreements," a form of joint venture in which parishes pool resources in establishing new schools or operating existing ones.

"There is an increasing interest in selecting this alternative, especially where demographics and the economy have affected the ability of a parish school to have stability," says Barbara McConville, the diocese's executive director for Catholic Formation and Education.

Guardian Angels Primary School in Clearwater, the diocese's newest school, is among those in the plan. When it opens in August, with kindergarten and first grade, the students will come from four parishes in northern Pinellas County. Those four parishes will share the school's financing and management.

Besides stepping up its use of interparochial agreements, the diocese also is addressing the daunting issue of teacher compensation.

Bishop John C. Favalora recently established a 15-member board that will advise him on various issues, with teacher compensation at the top of the agenda. McConville says the board will report its recommendations by early 1992.

This coming academic year, starting teachers in the diocese will earn $16,500.

"We would expect teacher salaries to be increased," McConville says, but probably through a "gradual phasing in.

"With some of our schools located in areas where there is a depressed economy, we cannot impose an immediate drastic burden on those parishes.

"On the other hand, the bishop has made it very clear that an increase in salary is an issue of social justice for the Catholic school system and our teachers."