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Plunging enrollment at private schools
Religious, independent schools in Sonoma County have one-third fewer students than a decade ago as lingering recession takes heavy toll
BETH SCHLANKER / The Press Democrat From left, friends Monica Fink, 15, Madison Thompson, 15, and Frankie Gambonini, 15, talk after school Thursday at St. Vincent de Paul High School in Petaluma,

By MARTIN ESPINOZA
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Published: Saturday, November 20, 2010 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 20, 2010 at 10:54 p.m.
( page of 6 )

In the first half of the decade, the prognosis for local private schools was looking dim even though the economy was looking up.

Home prices were soaring and the most worrisome job losses were confined to the high-tech industry.

Still, from 1999 to 2004, Sonoma County private schools lost a total of 1,000 students, a drop of about 13 percent.

And then the economy crumbled. Today, the decline has escalated to about 2,300 students, almost a third of the 8,054 students who attended private schools in 1999, according to state records.

With few exceptions, the financial storm that sank Ursuline High School earlier this month has affected each of the county’s 60 or so private schools. Several private schools in the past five years have been forced to shut down or dramatically scale back their operations because of declining enrollment and the enduring recession.

The decision to close Ursuline, made by the Catholic order that founded the all-girls Catholic school 130 years ago, shocked officials at local private and independent schools, many of whom have been walking the same financial tightrope.

“When I heard the news, I said, ‘Wow!’” said Pastor Brent Mitten, principal at Rincon Valley Christian School. “To have news like that was pretty sobering.”

About half of the private schools in Sonoma County are religious. Of the county’s 18 largest private schools with a student enrollment greater than 100, 10 are Catholic and six are other Christian denominations.

Only a handful of the large private schools — including Sonoma Academy, Cardinal Newman High School and Summerfield Waldorf School in Santa Rosa — are bucking the trend of declining enrollment.

The more common trend is reflected by Rincon Valley Christian School, which eight years ago had 535 students in grades pre-K through 12. Today, it has 234 students.

The decline, Mitten said, results from factors that include economic strain on families, fewer school-age kids and a growing number of school choice options for families. These options include high-performing public schools that are competing for students as well, and a growing number of public charter schools that didn’t exist a decade ago.

“Private-school tuitions have outpaced wage increases,” he said. Not just at religious schools, he added, but at independent schools and public colleges, such as California’s two university systems.

In 2008, Cross and Crown Lutheran in Rohnert Park eliminated its classes for older elementary-age students, doing so at a time when state budget strife and declining enrollment were also forcing public school districts to close campuses.

Three years earlier, Petaluma Christian Academy shuttered to make way for Harvest Christian School. The kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school had 252 students at its peak. Harvest started with less than 30 students, though it now has 153.

Merryhill, another private K-8 school, closed at the end of the 2009 school year. The school, which had an enrollment of more than 200 students in 2000, had fewer than 50 enrolled for fall 2009.

Windsor Christian Academy, formerly Windsor Christian Schools, has seen a decade of paring back academic offerings. The school has dropped its computer-based “School of Tomorrow,” its high school classes and its programs for students with minor disabilities.

The school, which now focuses on grades K-8, loses a few families every year, said administrator Tad Theiss. The school had 146 students during the 2009-’10 school year, down from as many as 261 during the 1999-2000 school year, according to data from the state education department.

“We were expecting only about 120 this year,” Theiss said.

The school anticipated a much larger drop because a significant number of parents of returning students waited closer to the start of the school year to re-enroll, he said.

“They really wanted to come, but they were waiting to see if they could afford it,” he said. “With the economy the way it is, in the last five or so years it’s become more difficult for families to send their kids to private school.”

At Ursuline, the financial drain of declining enrollment was exacerbated by a growing number of students requiring financial assistance to cover the school’s tuition. Private schools across the county are experiencing the same troublesome dynamic.

Tuition assistance at Windsor Christian Academy has doubled. Yearly tuition there ranges from $3,800 for a half day of kindergarten to $5,980 for sixth-to-eighth-graders.

“Three or four years ago, financial assistance was in the low-$20,000s. Now, it’s in the mid-$40,000 range,” Theiss said. A recent donation in the form of a $30,000 matching fundraiser campaign from a family with strong ties to the school helped raise an additional $40,000.

At Cardinal Newman High School, the only Catholic school in the county owned by the Santa Rosa Diocese, enrollment has remained steady. Ursuline’s enrollment fell from 400 at the start of the decade to 281 this year. Cardinal Newman, now an all-boys school, is expected to take Ursuline students next year.

Cardinal Newman President Mike Truesdell said the school’s focus on the “4-A’s” — academic excellence, altruistic spirit, artistic expression and athletic achievement — continues to draw parents, even in tough economic times.

“We work on the fundamentals, and the students become so proficient it almost becomes second nature to them,” Truesdell said. “And that helps them as they move through our program, which is very rigorous.”

The education that students get at Cardinal Newman prepares them for the best universities in the country, he said, making the $980-a-month tuition a worthwhile investment for parents.

Local private school officials said that a number of factors in addition to the recession have contributed to their enrollment difficulties.

John Walker, the principal at St. Vincent de Paul High School in Petaluma, said that the number of 15-year-olds in Sonoma County, and just about every other county in California, has been declining for years.

The estimated number of California 15-year-olds — those who each year replenish high school enrollment — peaked in 2006 at 603,444, according to data from the California Department of Finance.

The number, which had been growing since the beginning of the decade, has declined to an estimated 585,479.

Walker said there also has been a significant “cultural change” among parents and their kids.

“Many more students are choosing their high school today than before,” he said. “And kids will generally choose the more permissive environment.”

In the 2009-’10 school year, enrollment at St. Vincent dropped by about 50 students from a high of about 400 during the 2007-’08 school year, according to state data. Walker said school officials foresaw the effects of hard times two years ago and took action.

“We went to donors of the school and asked them to give some more” for scholarships, he said, adding that the number of scholarship given to help students pay for tuition has increased threefold.

The school put together a $250,000 endowment, of which half is committed to scholarship and tuition assistance. The other half goes toward teacher salaries and support and professional development. Total tuition assistance, not including scholarship funds, is about $380,000 annually.

Several private-school officials said that even in hard times, schools like St. Vincent are trying to stay competitive in a county where even the “bad schools” are pretty good, compared to more urban parts of the state and country. Charter schools have also increased school options for parents.

Two years ago, St. Vincent launched a digital film program, and this year the school’s music program started a jazz ensemble. A new synthetic outdoor athletic field will allow the school to have boys and girls soccer and boys varsity baseball teams play on campus.

John Collins, the superintendent of schools for the Santa Rosa Catholic Diocese, said the declines in Catholic school enrollment in Sonoma County have been less severe than in other parts of the state where Catholic schools sometimes compete with each other for students.

But he said tuition does not cover the full cost of education at Catholic schools in Sonoma County.

“Tuitions are generally in the vicinity of 75 to 80 percent of the actual cost per pupil,” he said.

In contrast to most other private schools in the county, Sonoma Academy in southeast Santa Rosa has seen steady growth during its 10 years of existence. The elite school opened in 2001 with 45 ninth- and 10th-graders. With the addition of 11th and 12th grades over the next two years, enrollment quickly grew.

There are 232 students enrolled at the academy for the 2010-’11 school year. Tuition has also increased, from $16,000 when the school opened to $32,000 now.

Half the students at the academy receive some form of financial assistance, something that would not be possible without the school’s generous board of trustees, significant donations and gifts and a $2 million endowment, said Janet Durgin, head of the school.

The school, which draws students from 77 schools in 30 cities in several North Coast counties, currently provides $2 million in financial assistance, Durgin said.

“No school is immune from financial issues today,” she said. “Fortunately our enrollment has grown each year and we have been able to expand the program.”

Sonoma Country Day School is another school that’s been able to maintain steady enrollment. It now has about 250 students, a decline of 36 from the 2003-’04 school year, according to state education data.

“For the last two years, we’ve been fine,” said Brad Weaver, head of the school. “We have not really seen any impact from the economy. We’ve actually seen interest increasing.”

The average tuition at Sonoma Country Day is $20,000, he said, and the number of parents that receive some form of financial assistance has grown from 15 to 20 percent five years ago to about 30 percent today.

That increase is “actually one of our primary strategic priorities,” he said.

“We could have made the decision to not grow that number and lower our enrollment,” he said. “But that’s not an option for us. We believe in making our education available to as many in our community as possible.”

News researchers Janet Balicki and Teresa Meikle assisted in this report. You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

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