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Faster than administrators can say "preschool," toddlers are swelling the ranks of private institutions, new figures released by the National Association of Independent Schools reveal.

Nursery-school enrollment at nais schools grew by 10.3 percent last year, the largest increase registered by any grade level. The greater demand for preschool programs convinced 22 schools to open their doors to 3- and 4-year-olds, bringing the total number offering preschool to 302.

Total enrollment in independent schools inched up by only about 1 percent last year, from 342,403 students to 347,897. The association's membership grew from 859 schools to 870 schools, however, and, on average, each school enrolled 400 students last year, compared with 398.6 in 1985.

In contrast to the gain in toddlers, the nais schools are showing declines in the size of their 8th, 9th, and 10th grades. Enrollment rises in the junior and senior years, but postgraduate programs between high school and college fell nearly by 11 percent.


The nais also reports that more of its students are receiving financial aid.

Nais members gave $164- million in financial aid, not including loans, to students in the 1985-86 school year, or an average of nearly $3,270 per student. About 18 percent of students now receive scholarships and grants to cover tuition, according to the association, and in the past five years, the dollar amount of financial aid has risen by 47 percent.

About 21 percent of students awarded financial aid in 1985-86 were minorities; they received 27 percent of the total dollars awarded. Slightly less than one-third of minority students enrolled received financial aid.


A small but significant group of minority students attending private schools this fall will be enrolled in what one study has called "neighborhood schools" catering to minorities.

The Institute for Independent Education, established in 1984 to study these schools, has verified the existence of 211 private schools operated by minorities for minority students.

The schools are usually located in inner-city areas and serve mainly blacks, Hispanics, American Indians, and Asians, the institute found in a survey released this summer. Most of the children attending come from families of four or five with an average income of less than $30,000.

Generally, parents say they send their children to these schools for a safe environment and a stress on values and the acquisition of basic skills.

A 38-page summary of the study is available for $4.50, and the full report for $25, from the institute, P.O. Box 42571, Washington, D.C. 20015.--kg

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