Private schools make changes to stay afloat

Private schools in Orange County are struggling to maintain and boost student enrollment in the down economy but are reporting that the steep enrollment slides they endured a few years ago are reversing as parents become increasingly frustrated by class sizes and budget cuts in public schools.

At the annual Orange County Private School Fair on Sunday at the Anaheim Convention Center, campus representatives said they’ve aggressively tackled enrollment challenges by offering more need-based financial aid, launching fundraisers to pay for programs, and freezing or slashing tuition rates.

“We have all had to adjust, look at our budgets, figure out what we could cut without compromising the education of our students,” said Stefan Joly, middle school principal at Oakridge Private School in Orange.

At its low point a few years ago, Oakridge enrolled 130 children. That figure has since rebounded to about 205 in preschool through eighth grade, Joly said, because officials increased scholarships and cut tuition.

Elementary school tuition at Oakridge is $6,800 annually, down from about $8,000, and $8,600 in middle school, down from $11,000.

“We needed to be competitive and make up for the difference in the economic reality,” Joly said.

At Prince of Peace Lutheran School in Anaheim, officials are offering tuition discounts to families in exchange for performing services at the school, such as mowing lawns, maintaining the school website and taking publicity photos, said kindergarten teacher Theresa Pekarcik.

The school enrolls about 150 children in preschool through eighth grade; tuition runs $4,200 a year.

“We’re a family – we don’t want them to leave,” Pekarcik said at Sunday’s fair. “They want to stay because they want a quality education with Christian values; they love the warm feel of our campus.”

Carden Academy in Mission Viejo likewise is thinking outside the box. When it hosts fundraisers each year, school officials explain to parents that proceeds will go to fund a specific program, which maximizes parents’ investment in the fundraiser.

“It’s something very tangible our parents get,” said Kathy Angioli, admissions director. “This enables us to get all of the projects and programs we need.”

Many private school parents are willing to continue forking out tuition not only because of the funding declines they’ve seen in public schools, but because of general uncertainty over public schools’ future, said education researcher Lance Izumi of the free-market think-tank Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy in San Francisco, who was a featured presenter at Sunday’s fair.

“There just seems to be a lot of turmoil and uncertainty in the public school system – with finances, proper administration, how teachers are evaluated,” said Izumi, whose talk Sunday was entitled “Not as Good as You Think,” about the shortcomings of public schools.

“It’s caused people to really think twice about whether public school is really for them.”

James Shafer, assistant admissions director at Page Private School, said many parents are turning to private school because their children are being lost in the shuffle in public school, especially with increasingly larger class sizes. Page, which runs campuses in Costa Mesa and Garden Grove, keeps its class sizes under 20 kids each, Shafer said.

“These kids aren’t dumb, but if kids aren’t really outgoing (in public school), then they’re slipping through the cracks,” Shafer said. “At our school, we’re able to help some of these same kids bypass an entire grade.”

Fair attendee Caroline Yoo of Fullerton said she was considering private school for both of her sons, ages 2 and 5. Her older son, a kindergartener at a public school, has special learning needs, she said, so she’s looking for a smaller school for him – and she would want to enroll her younger son at the same school.

“I’m hoping that whatever school I send them to will have a second-child discount,” Yoo said. “We will have to somehow cut back on mommy-and-daddy expenses to pay for it.”

As parents continue to feel the pinch of the economic downturn, even Orange County’s largest private schools are making changes to increase their appeal.

Santa Ana’s legendary Mater Dei High School has lost about 200 students since 2008, and its waiting list that was once 200 names long has evaporated, said Allison Bergeron, admissions marketing director for Mater Dei.

The 2,100-student Catholic school has responded by dramatically increasing its financial aid packages, Bergeron said. About 750 students – 40 percent of the student body – now receive about $3.1 million in financial aid annually, up from about 25 percent of students who received financial aid in 2008. The $10,725 to $11,450 annual price tag of attending Mater Dei is reduced for families by as much as 50 percent, depending on need, Bergeron said.

Mater Dei junior Joseph Dorion, 17, of Orange said his single mother has sacrificed tremendously to send him and his older sister to Mater Dei – but he still wouldn’t be at the school if it weren’t for financial aid.

“My mom has basically done without for the past 24 years,” said Dorion, who was recruiting for Mater Dei at Sunday’s fair. “She could have bought a new house and a new car with 24 years of tuition.”

Susie Wenger, founder and administrator of Pathway School in Laguna Hills, said many families try public school for kindergarten and only then realize they need to seek out an alternative. Pathway is a tiny school of just 24 kids in the first through ninth grades who are either special needs or require non-traditional instruction.

“Public schools are trying to achieve for their students, but they can’t help it – they just don’t have enough resources,” Wenger said.

“Families only have to spend part of a year in public school to realize a lot of kids just need a smaller, more controlled environment.”


Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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