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Extra Creditors

Financial hardships put pressure on private schools to extend financial aid amid the recession.



There's a hint of anxiety to the otherwise soothing words Sally K. Boese uses to assess what, she says, are the minimal effects that hard-hitting job losses and the broader economic pall are having on local private schools.

“As you may know, private schools are able to feature programs in the arts and other programs that go by the wayside in the public schools as they face budget cuts,” says Boese, executive director of the Virginia Association of Independent Schools, beginning with the sunny-side-up to what is otherwise a butter-side-down story. “Across the entire commonwealth, enrollments are down [at private schools].”

One of the unique aspects of the economic bust up has been that the effect has been felt almost universally, with less regard for class or social rank than is often the case when the economy goes south.

In Richmond, the loss of employers such as Circuit City, S&K and Land America has forced some families that once benefited from well-paying corporate jobs to re-evaluate educational choices for their children, say local private school administrators, who have taken pains to try to cushion the economy's ill effects on these families.

“It does seem to be the case this year that schools have had to increase the level of assistance available,” Boese says. “Some people may, in fact, may find themselves needing to make that kind of choice, but we hope of course that our schools will be able to continue to support families with the needs they have financially, so that people may not have to make that choice.”

A number of area private schools are liberally employing aid and short-term tuition forbearances for families between jobs in an effort to shelter pupils from their families' financial circumstances.

“What we have seen is an increase in the number of parents requesting financial assistance,” says Sean M. Cruess, principal at St. Benedict Catholic, a private elementary and middle school on Grove Avenue. “We've just about doubled the amount of financial aid we gave out this year over what we did last year.”

Last year the school awarded $46,700 in financial aid, divvied out among less than 20 percent of the student body. By contrast, Cruess says, this year $68,825 was given out to more than a quarter of the school's pupils. Tuition at the school runs between $4,400 and $6,200 a year.

Even with so much aid awarded, Cruess says there are a number of families at the school who are making greater sacrifices this year to keep their kids at the school. “We had much more need than we were able to meet, even with the increase in tuition assistance,” he says.

So far, Cruess says he knows of only one family at his school that has had to withdraw due to finances, and in fact, he's been able to maintain enrollment.

But through conversations with others in the private school community, Cruess says other area schools have been harder hit, including prestigious schools such as St. Catherine's and St. Christopher's schools, where tuition can be as much as $20,000 yearly.

Susan Mistr, spokeswoman for St. Christopher's, an Episcopal boy's school, dismisses rumors that the school has seen a loss of pupils.

“We are seeing an increase in the number of families requesting financial aid,” she says.  “It's been a lot of work to work with families.”

Officials at St. Catherine's, the girls' counterpoint to St. Christopher's, also dismissed talk of declining enrollment, citing “a record number of students.” It was unclear how much of that new enrollment was due to vacancies.

Thomas Burkett, the headmaster at Banner Christian School in Chesterfield County, is looking at the positive: “We've only lost 10 students from last year, but I've talked with others who have lost significantly more.”
There's also been a noticeable increase in former private school pupils enrolling in area public schools, officials say. While school officials cite privacy issues in declining to discuss the number children transitioning from private school to public school, many acknowledge that there has been a notable increase.

In Chesterfield, schools spokesman Shawn M. Smith says, the district is aware that it's seeing more former private school pupils occupying its desks. “We have seen some students who were in private school coming to public schools,” Smith says.

Ironically, it's not just the private schools feeling the market pressures.

Beginning as far back as January of 2008, Chesterfield Public Schools officials began talking about steep budget cuts that would impact services — even teacher staffing levels — at its schools.

Cruess at St. Benedict credits those panicked warnings — even then, Chesterfield was predicting more than $50 million in state and county revenue losses — for leading led to something of a reversal of roles for his school.

“We had a surprising number of students looking in from Chesterfield this year,” he says, speculating that talk of cuts explains why “we definitely had more applicants from there than we normally get.”

But while notable, such seeming unlikely circumstances that would see a private school benefiting from the economic crunch at a public institution are really not the norm, says George McVey, president of the Virginia Council for Private Education, an organization that represents more than 400 private schools around the state.

He says that there's little doubt that economic hardship at home for private school families is most certainly pushing more and more students into public schools.

“Everybody talks about it,” McVey says of his colleagues in the private school community, though he says it's still too early to have any “concrete numbers that would indicate how much they're suffering.” 

In fact, just what effect the nation's worst recession in 75 years will have on the long-term health of private schools may not truly be known for some time, he speculates.

“It may be that some people decide to try the public sector during elementary school when times are tight,” McVey says. “What I'm speculating is that if you're a young family and you've got your first kid going off to school, at this point in time you might consider the public sector more than you would have in the past. It's a new expense for you.

“It will be very interesting to see how that may play out over the next several years,” he says.

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