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Suffering in Private

The budget ax isn't falling on independent schools, but economic conditions have led to a spike in dropouts.



Private and independent schools may be immune from state budget slashes, but with endowments taking major hits, requests for financial aid rising and the double-dip recession's promise of lagging job recovery, making the case for $20,000 tuition is as tough a sale as ever.

The brunt of the recession's impact on private schools falls on families. In particular, the need for “financial aid has increased really dramatically,” says Myra McGovern, spokeswoman for the accrediting National Association of Independent Schools. She points to association data that shows while private school enrollment dropped by less than 1 percent last year, the number of pupils who received financial aid increased by 12.5 percent.

Richmond private schools interviewed by Style Weekly all report more requests for need-based financial aid from families, and while some have accommodated their budgets accordingly, all schools say they've lost pupils to the recession.

“Families … have come to us and said ‘Yes, we just can't do it anymore, right now,'” says Cary Mauk, director of admissions at St. Christopher's School. Upper-school tuition at the Episcopal Church-affiliated St. Christopher's, like that of its sister school, St. Catherine's, is more than $20,000, making it the most expensive private high school in Richmond. (Collegiate's upper-school tuition is a close third, at at just under $20,000).

For other schools, losses lie in the applicant pool. “We end up losing some really good applicants because of the inability to pay,” says Greg Lilly, director of admissions at the Catholic, all-boys Benedictine High School on North Sheppard Street, where tuition is $14,500.

The pressure on families hasn't gone unnoticed by school officials and donors.

“We've had certain groups of alumni who have been interested in establishing special funds to help some of our families who may be dealing with special difficulties,” says Charles Stillwell, headmaster of St. Christopher's. The Steward School, where upper-school tuition runs $18,645, received a $1 million anonymous gift last Christmas specifically for financial aid.

But while million-plus endowments for large, established schools have undoubtedly been affected, the financial landscape for many of Richmond's major private schools appears relatively modest in austerity.

St. Christopher's, Collegiate and Steward schools, the four-year Benedictine and St. Gertrude high schools, Trinity Episcopal School and Richmond Montessori School all report steady enrollment, with most schools at capacity and some reporting a net boost for 2010. St. Catherine's School, the area's largest all-girls private school, did not respond to questions by press time. Officials at Rudlin Torah Academy declined to be interviewed.

For teachers and staff at the schools contacted by Style, the picture is mostly one of temporary salary freezes or more-modest raises. Capital campaigns and donations, if they've been slowed, continue, and new buildings and renovations appear more likely on private-school campuses than on public ones.

For independent schools the steady, yearly increases in tuition, typically between 2 and 5 percent, are likely to continue. For a family considering the options, there may be hesitation to make a long-term commitment to private schooling, especially when public schools in Henrico and Chesterfield counties, despite being subject to government cuts, still rank among the most competitive in the state.

While pupil shifts between the private and public school systems are anecodotal and difficult to track, the profile of the 255 transfer applications received by the city's new elementary charter school, the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts, suggests that some private-school families are searching for more options. Patrick Henry spokeswoman Kristen Larson says 30 percent of Patrick Henry's 255 transfer applications came from private-school or home-school families.


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