As public school enrollment in Pinellas County continues to decline, some local private schools are expanding.
Clearwater Academy International, for example, is planning a new campus in Largo. Enrollment went from 150 students in 2002 to 270 in 2007, said headmaster Jim Zwers.
And Pinellas County Jewish Day School in Largo recently bought property next to the school, after enrollment increased 36 percent in the past six years.
Focused marketing and community outreach efforts have increased public awareness of the school, said head of school Brian Siegel. But parents say the small class sizes and morality education are deciding factors when it comes to choosing JDS, he said.
"We fill that need for our families to be able to get both their secular education, without compromise, as well as a well-rooted religious education," he said.
Overall, while public school enrollment in Pinellas declined by about 2 percent last year, private school enrollment increased by just over 2 percent.
Fifteen percent of students in Pinellas County attend private schools. But a poll conducted by the National Association of Independent Schools in 2006 found that a third of parents would prefer a private school, if cost and transportation weren't factors.
Half of those respondents said they support the teaching of discipline, morals and respect. The majority of those who favored private schools said smaller class size was a deciding factor, something that several Pinellas private school administrators said they hear from parents frequently.
"I think we are able to offer them, in that smaller environment, that sort of one-on-one, individualized attention where you can work with the kids based on their individual strengths and interests," said Daryl DeBerry, admissions director at Canterbury School of Florida in St. Petersburg.
Canterbury saw an enrollment increase of almost 10 percent this school year, DeBerry said.
More individualized attention was the deciding factor when Andrea Walls pulled her son, Derek, out of Azalea Elementary two years ago. The 9-year-old, who has reading and expressive-language difficulties, was falling behind after repeating a grade.
"We were seeking more one-on-one attention. That would be the biggest reason," she said.
Derek now attends tiny Brighton Preparatory School in St. Petersburg. Walls, who still has two children attending Pinellas public schools, said she supports public education but felt that Derek's options were limited in a public school environment.
Private school officials said they've also heard complaints over the past few years from parents confused by the complicated rules and lottery system of Pinellas' choice plan. A new system that encourages families to attend schools in their neighborhoods will be instituted next school year.
Wellington School, which has campuses in St. Petersburg and Seminole, has been hearing from more parents who want their kids to go to schools closer to home. So it has added new grades at the St. Petersburg campus to accommodate a growing number of parents who live and work in the city, said admissions director Karen Deakley.
Enrollment at Wellington has held steady at about 350 students, Deakley said.
Several private school officials said they have also heard from parents who don't support public schools' use of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
"I think that a lot of families, and a lot of faculty even, worry that the FCAT drives the curriculum," said Siegel, of the Jewish Day School.
At Clearwater Central Catholic, enrollment went up by a fraction this year, said president John Venturella. Particularly promising was a spike in the number of incoming freshmen, he said.
Meanwhile, Pinellas public school enrollment has declined in the past several years. County officials have pointed to poor economic conditions that are forcing families to leave the state because of higher property taxes and insurance rates.
Despite the economic crunch, some Pinellas parents are still finding ways to afford private schools, where tuition can range from a few hundred dollars, to more than $13,000 at schools like Shorecrest Preparatory, Canterbury and Admiral Farragut Academy.
BY THE NUMBERS
Number of private schools in Pinellas in 2005-06
Number of private schools in Pinellas in 2006-07
Number of students enrolled in Pinellas private schools in 2005-06
Number of students enrolled in Pinellas private schools in 2006-07
Number of students enrolled in Pinellas public schools in 2005-06
Number of students enrolled in Pinellas public schools in 2006-07
Percentage of students enrolled in private schools in Pinellas in 2006-07
Pinellas County's ranking, statewide, for private school enrollment.
Source: Florida's Private Schools Annual Reports, 2005-06, 2006-07, Florida Department of Education.