Despite economy, private school enrollment healthy
September 11, 2009
CARBONDALE – When the private Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork near Carbondale had 30 of its families indicate at the end of last school year, during the height of the recession, that they would be leaving the school, things looked pretty bleak.
“We called an all-school strategic meeting and started talking about cutbacks, and how we could do it without affecting faculty and the education of children,” said Shawna Blevins, Waldorf enrollment coordinator. The nonprofit school serves preschool through eighth-grade students throughout the Roaring Fork Valley.
“We were definitely pretty concerned,” she said.
Many of those families who left the school also left the valley, Blevins said. Others stayed, but couldn’t afford the tuition despite attempts by the school to work with the families. Those students most likely went into the public school system, she said.
But the Waldorf School was pleasantly surprised when the new school year started with 30 new families to make up for the loss of the families that had to leave.
“We were extremely pleasantly surprised,” Blevins said.
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The story was similar at St. Stephen’s Catholic School in Glenwood Springs, a private parochial school for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, belonging to the Archdiocese of Denver.
“We became aware last school year of the possible changes that might need to happen and started preparing for them,” said Dr. Tom Alby, principal and director of development for St. Stephen’s.
During the summer, Alby said he suddenly started getting calls from families he had been talking to about enrolling their children at St. Stephen’s saying they couldn’t afford it.
“We have lost some families as a result of the effects of the economy,” he said. “But a lot of families are really sacrificing to try to make it work.”
In fact, St. Stephen’s enrollment this fall is actually up, from 144 students last year to approximately 160 now.
“Some people have lost jobs, or had to cut back on hours,” Alby said. “I’m not saying it’s easy, a lot of people have had to cut back, but their children’s education is important. It is a sacrifice to send your child to a parochial school.”
Alby said he’s still concerned there could be a lag effect from the economic downturn.
“We’re definitely still concerned, but with cautious optimism that we’re going to be fine,” he said.
For an institution like the Waldorf School that counts on student tuition for about 20 percent of its annual budget, and with grants and foundation support uncertain as well because of the economy, the future is still a concern, Blevins said.
“We have had families ask for more help with scholarships,” she said. Annual tuition at the Waldorf School is $8,450.
But, “Our attitude is that we want to help as many families as we can who want to attend the school,” she said.
“We ask families to fill out an application for assistance, and they meet with the board and community council,” Blevins said. “We ask what would work for them and how committed they are to the school. It also has to be something that works for the school, but it’s better than having an empty seat.”
St. Stephen’s also has a variety of grants available to prospective students, Alby said, and oftentimes families will sponsor another family to be able to have their children attend the school.
The independent Colorado Rocky Mountain School, a private college preparatory boarding school in Carbondale, has also has seen an increase in financial aid requests, said CRMS Director of Admissions Molly Dorais.
However, while boarding school enrollment nationally is down about 10 percent, she said CRMS is holding steady with 145 students this year.
“Based on all the information and projections, we hit all of our numbers,” Dorais said. “So, we feel pretty good about that. But we will have to see how next year goes and how long we’ll be living with the outcome of the recession.”
CRMS is actually made up of about 60 percent boarding students from around the country with several international students, and 40 percent day students from the Roaring Fork Valley region.
“We have even more diversity with our boarding students this year, both internationally and domestically,” Dorais said, adding that the school has students from 22 states.
The economic impact has been more severe on private preschool programs in the valley, such as Blue Lake Preschool in El Jebel.
“We’ve had over 300 families on the wait list in the past, but that’s not the case anymore,” said Melissa Goodman, assistant director at Blue Lake. “We still have a wait list, but a lot of people just can’t afford it when we call and say we have a spot.”
The school has 84 families currently enrolled, not including its after-school program, she said. That’s down 17 percent.
Many families have dropped down to one or two days, instead of the three or four days they were enrolling their children for previously, she said.
“We currently have 69 vacant spots [as of the first week of September],” Goodman said. “If you were to do the math for a 31-day month, we are short $17,085 from last year. That’s a lot of money to come up short in one month’s time.”
The school’s grants are keeping them afloat, she said, but those dollars are also in jeopardy.