Education  January 8, 2016

Taking attendance: Private schools battle enrollment challenges

Independent private schools — those not operated directly by religious organizations — say they’re bucking a trend seen nationally and locally of declining enrollment.

Overall private-school enrollment — measured as a percentage of the overall K-12 student population — declined throughout much of the Boulder Valley and Northern Colorado from 2009 to 2014, according to a BizWest analysis of American Community Survey data by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Boulder, Broomfield and Larimer counties all posted declines in the percentage of kindergarten-through-12th-grade students, with only Weld County recording a slight increase. In raw numbers, Weld County’s private-school enrollment also declined during the period.

Broomfield County saw the largest decline in private-school enrollment — almost 5 percentage points — with a corresponding increase in public-school rolls. Boulder County posted a 1.3-percentage-point decrease in private-school attendance, while in Larimer County, it was 0.4 percentage points. In the same five-year period, however, Weld County had a half-percentage-point increase in private-school enrollment as a percentage of overall enrollment and a decrease in public-school attendance.

Lee Quinby, executive director of the Association of Colorado Independent Schools, said the 33 private schools his organization represents have not seen a decline in enrollment over the past few years. The ACIS accredits independent private schools such as Boulder Country Day School, Alexander Dawson School in Lafayette and Eagle Rock School in Estes Park. It does not include parochial schools such as those operated by the Archdiocese of Denver and other religious organizations.

“Enrollment in our independent private schools has gone up 1 to 2 percent year over year,” Quinby said.

Indeed, John Suitor, head of school at Boulder Country Day School, said that since the 2010-2011 school year, enrollment has climbed from 311 students to almost 350.

“A significant number of our families relocate from out of state,” Suitor said.

He added that parents choose independent private schools such as his because they can offer programs that public schools have difficulty funding. Also, class size and a focus on character education and development come into play.

“We are not only for families of wealth or means,” Suitor said. “Our goal is to make sure finances do not prevent anyone from our school.”

Charter schools may be one of the biggest factors in public-school enrollment growth along the northern Front Range. Charter schools are tuition-free public schools open to all students, and while typically attached to a public school district, they have separate mandates and often focus on certain academic sectors. For example, some charter schools have an arts emphasis, and others may have a science or engineering focus.

“We’re not ideologues, and have no animosity toward private schools. We just want really good schools for kids,” said Nora Flood, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

At ACIS, Quinby added that national data tracked by his organization shows there has been a nationwide trend in the past 10 years of a 10 percent drop in private-school enrollment and a 10 percent jump in charter-school attendance. Again, that drop appears to be primarily with private schools affiliated with religious organizations.

“In tracking the 10 percent decline, most was from Catholic and evangelical schools to charter,” Quimby said. “There is a very intense movement to charter schools. Public schools have to really market themselves.”

Quinby’s assertions are backed up by a January 2013 analysis by the Census Bureau. “The Decline in Private School Enrollment,” prepared by Stephanie Ewert of the bureau’s Social, Economic and Housing Statistics Division, identified several reasons for declining private-school enrollment:

 Declining Catholic-school enrollment and school closures, brought on by changing demographics of the Catholic population and sex-abuse scandals.

 Economic conditions may have prompted some parents to shift their children from private schools to public.

• More parents are opting to home-school their children. “If families who enroll children in private schools also seek schooling that radically differs from public schooling, then there might be underlying similarities between households that homeschool and those that send children to private schools,” the report states.

 The growth of charter schools. “If parents perceive charter schools as an improvement over regular public schools, then some households that previously enrolled their children in private schools will change from private to charter schools,” Ewert wrote.

Quinby noted that 40 percent of public-school students in Boulder go to non-neighborhood schools. And, he noted, some studies show that even if their child is not attending an independent private school, parents perceive those schools to be better at college prep, leadership development, and character development. Many are willing to pay for that.

While a representative was not immediately available, the Archdiocese of Denver has had to weather enrollment decline in some schools, leading to the pending closure of St. Louis School in Englewood at the end of the coming 2016 spring semester.

A fact sheet from the archdiocese related to the shuttering stated that the closure “has been impacted by several factors, not unlike hundreds of schools across the country that have had to close. The primary factors affecting the school’s lack of viability are changing demographics, which has led to shortfalls in enrollment and the resources necessary for sustainability.” Additionally, parish communities often have to make up the gap in tuition paid per student and the actual cost of educating that student. Such subsidies can run into thousands of dollars per enrollee.

However, the 2015 Financial Report from the Archdiocese of Denver shows the two high schools it runs are holding steady if not increasing in enrollment and tuition collection. That includes Holy Family High School in Broomfield.

While the private-school uptick in Weld County is difficult to account for, the county was one of the fastest-growing in the country in the past five years. That includes the surging communities of Dacono, Erie, Frederick, Firestone, Johnstown and Milliken. One theory is that families moving from larger cities to these towns may be accustomed to having their children in private schools, and continue to enroll them in the area private schools.

Nonetheless, the charter movement and strong Front Range school districts likely will continue to lure some families away from private.

“Charter schools are growing logarithmically,” Colorado League of Charter Schools’ Flood said. “Denver is the fastest-growing urban district in the country. Charters are helping that growth. Families know that they can demand a higher-quality school, whether it’s public, charter or private.”

Independent private schools — those not operated directly by religious organizations — say they’re bucking a trend seen nationally and locally of declining enrollment.

Overall private-school enrollment — measured as a percentage of the overall K-12 student population — declined throughout much of the Boulder Valley and Northern Colorado from 2009 to 2014, according to a BizWest analysis of American Community Survey data by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Boulder, Broomfield and Larimer counties all posted declines in the percentage of kindergarten-through-12th-grade students, with only Weld County recording a slight increase. In raw numbers, Weld County’s private-school…

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