School Choice & Charters

Private Schools See Enrollment Surge

By Catherine Gewertz — October 10, 2001 6 min read

At Vacaville Christian School, students can rely on a few facts of life: a deeply spiritual, family-oriented environment, challenging coursework, and the clang of hammers.

The private school, in a suburb between San Francisco and Sacramento, Calif., has nearly tripled its enrollment in the past 12 years, to 1,470, and is adding buildings so quickly that construction is as much a way of life as homework. Even as the campus expands, however, so does the school’s waiting list. Parents camp out in the parking lot the night before applications are taken.

In the past 10 years, Vacaville has added 33 classrooms, science and video technology laboratories, a radio station, and a multipurpose cafeteria/gym. Just this fall, with bulging enrollment, it added classes to the 5th, 6th, 7th, 11th, and 12th grades. Work is now beginning on 20 new high school classrooms.

“We are trying as hard as we can to keep up,” Superintendent Karen L. Winter said.

Ms. Winter has a lot of company. Across the country, the number of applications to private schools is rising, and such schools’ enrollments are swelling. But many private schools have a limited ability to expand, forcing them to turn away greater numbers of those wishing to attend.

Those who work in or study private schools point to several dynamics contributing to the backup. The most potent, they say, is a demographic truth equally evident in public schools: The school-age population is in an upward spike, a trend referred to as the baby boom echo. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 46 million children were enrolled in public schools and 5.2 million in private schools in the fall of 1999, a 30-year high for each.

A Numbers Game

Parents of the current generation of K-12 students, aware of increasingly competitive college admissions for the most sought-after schools, are also more inclined than ever to give their children an edge by enrolling them in private school, said Bruce S. Cooper, a professor of educational administration at Fordham University in New York City. And the expansion of the American middle class has given more families the money to do so, he said.

In addition, he said, some religious families are concerned about the “godlessness” of public schools, a sentiment that manifests itself in the growing popularity of Christian education.

Some interpret the rising demand for private schools as a sign of increasing unhappiness with public schools, and indeed, admissions directors confirm that some parents say just that.

But experts who study school enrollment trends suggest that the population bump, rather than public school flight, is the main culprit. They note that private schools’ overall share of the school-age population remains within its traditional range of 10 percent to 11 percent.

“It’s a rising tide that floats all boats,” said Stephen P. Broughman, the statistician who oversees a biennial report on private school enrollment for the NCES, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education. “There are more kids in public schools, and more kids in private schools.”

Christian schools make up an increasingly large proportion of the private school world. In 1989, the NCES reported 528,000 students in such schools, 11 percent of the private school enrollment. By 1999, that number had risen to 773,000—a 46 percent increase—and accounted for 15 percent. The greatest number of private school students still attended Roman Catholic schools—2.5 million. But Catholic schools’ share of the total had fallen from 54 percent in 1989 to 48 percent in 1999. Jewish day schools, one of the fastest-growing segments of private education, estimate that 210,000 students enrolled this fall, up from 185,000 two years ago, according to Marvin Schick, a senior adviser to the Avi Chai Foundation in New York City, which tracks such enrollment.

Lawrence G. Freedman knows the growing pains of that expansion firsthand. Mr. Freedman, the headmaster of the David Posnack Hebrew Day Schools in Plantation, Fla., just west of Fort Lauderdale, says he sometimes has to wait outside his own office while teachers use it for a meeting or the school psychologist uses it for a counseling session. Some classes eat lunch in their classrooms because there isn’t enough room in the cafeteria to run the whole school through in shifts.

When Mr. Freedman arrived at the school seven years ago, it had one building, with 200 students in prekindergarten through 6th grade. Now it has four buildings, with 1,100 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. A new high school for 900 is being built, slated for opening next spring.

Seven years ago, 99 percent of those who applied to David Posnack were accepted. But today, with applications still outpacing spaces, only 85 percent of applications are accepted, Mr. Freedman said.

Delivering Tough News

Refusing admission to a certain portion of applicants has always been an unpleasant fact of life for many private schools, but even those who never had to do so are now enduring it. “We turned away 15 or 20 families last year. We’ve never done that before,” said Marilynn Peeke, the principal of Atholton Seventh-day Adventist School in Columbia, Md.

The school, with 110 students in grades K-8, is literally pushing out of the back of the church, adding four classrooms to be opened next spring and four more classrooms and an administrative complex for next school year. “We weren’t looking to grow quite this fast,” Ms. Peeke said. “We’re bursting at the seams.”

Mark J. Mitchell, the director of information and research for the Washington-based National Association of Independent Schools, said enrollment in the group’s 1,000 member schools increased by 4.6 percent between fall 1999 and fall 2000. The average size of the schools increased significantly as well during that period: from 469 to 506, or a little more than 7 percent, he said.

Admissions officers are trying to manage higher-than- normal ratios of applicants-to-spaces, ranging from 3-to-1 to 9-to-1, said Steve C. Clem, the executive director of the Association of Independent Schools in New England, which represents 175 private schools. And since more students are accepting offers of admission than usual, admissions officers are forced to manage enrollment more carefully, accepting fewer applicants than they might have otherwise and keeping a top-notch waiting list, he said.

“The biggest question,” Mr. Clem said, “is how do you get through this period without making a lot of people upset?”

That dilemma is evident at one of the schools in the region, the nationally known Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H. The high school of 1,000 experienced a 10 percent jump in applications in the spring of 2000 and a 20 percent jump in 2001, said its acting admissions director, Susan J. Herney. That left 2,000 students applying for 340 spots. The school accepted 42 percent of those who applied for the fall of 1995; by this fall, it could accept only 26 percent.

Admissions officers find themselves with pools of applicants who are better prepared academically than ever before, and yet having to explain to more disappointed parents than ever why their children weren’t accepted. It makes the competition sharper than ever.

“We tell them they fell in a year which was unbelievable, both in terms of the quality of the pool and the numbers, that it wasn’t a particular weakness with their son or daughter,” Ms. Herney said. “The drain clearly is in having acceptable students apply and having to say no. It’s not an easy thing to do.”

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