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Washington Area's Private Schools Work to Stem Lower Enrollments Amid the Downturn

"Most of the schools are having the lowest tuition increase they have had in many years," said Tom Farquhar, head of the Bullis School in Potomac. Maximum tuition will increase 3.5 percent next school year, to $29,430. Previously, the increase had been 5 to 6 percent.
"Most of the schools are having the lowest tuition increase they have had in many years," said Tom Farquhar, head of the Bullis School in Potomac. Maximum tuition will increase 3.5 percent next school year, to $29,430. Previously, the increase had been 5 to 6 percent. (By Jacqueline Malonson For The Washington Post)

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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 2, 2009

Private schools in the Washington region are feeling squeezed by the economic downturn, seeing shrinking endowments and in some cases declining enrollment.

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A Maryland State Department of Education analysis points to a 3 percent decline in private school enrollment in its eight-county suburban region from fall 2007 to fall 2008. The analysis considered schools that had reported head counts to the state in both years. Enrollment declined from 60,822 to 59,054 over that time.

Bigger, bolder open-house signs popped up outside the front gates of nonpublic schools everywhere to herald the winter application season, a signal that even exclusive schools are concerned about the bottom line. Some have extended application deadlines. Many are seeking to limit tuition increases.

"Most of the schools are having the lowest tuition increase they have had in many years," said Tom Farquhar, head of the Bullis School in Potomac. At his 650-student school, maximum tuition will rise 3.5 percent, to $29,430 next school year. Previously, he said, increases often were about 5 to 6 percent.

What's more, Farquhar said, the school's endowment has dwindled from $15 million to about $10 million, making it harder to dispense aid.

There are bright spots on the private education horizon. Enrollment losses have been comparatively slight, school officials say. Some well-known independent schools still report long waiting lists. In addition, the Washington Archdiocese reports that an unprecedented infusion last fall of $965,000 in financial aid -- doubling the total annual aid -- has paid off for 34 Roman Catholic schools in Maryland and the District. They have retained 321 students who had planned to leave and recruited 241 students whose families could not afford full tuition, officials said.

"We have been able to slow or shift the tide in enrollment in a lot of our schools," archdiocese spokeswoman Kathy Dempsey said.

Virginia and D.C. governments do not track nonpublic enrollment.

Maryland's analysis showed that private school enrollment declined 2.4 percent statewide, from 112,088 to 109,408, between fall 2007 and fall 2008. Public enrollment stayed nearly constant, dipping 0.2 percent, to 843,864 from 845,700.

Public enrollment in the eight-county area (Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles, Frederick, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and St. Mary's) was virtually unchanged: 491,858 in 2007 vs. 491,418 in 2008.

But even in Maryland, it is hard to track private school enrollment: The state survey is voluntary, and participation fell off this year because government reductions left fewer staff members to remind schools to participate. As a result, the state analysis considered only schools that answered the survey two years in a row.

Total nonpublic enrollment in the eight-county area of Maryland has been sliding in recent years, falling 4 percent in fall 2006 and 3 percent the next year. In six of the previous seven years, the total had risen.

Public enrollment is rising in Montgomery and Howard and across Northern Virginia. Some school systems have gained students at the expense of private schools. Montgomery has reported a net gain of 1,452 students from private schools in this school year through December. Enrollment is about 139,300 overall.

"This is the first time in years that, as you drive around Bethesda, all the [private] schools still have signs saying they're taking applications," said Montgomery school board member Patricia O'Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase).

Nonpublic schools with the largest enrollment declines include St. Philip Neri in Anne Arundel, St. Peters in Charles, St. Jude in Montgomery and Grace Brethren Christian in Prince George's, all well-established campuses that lost at least 10 percent of their student body in this school year, according to state data.

Catholic schools, which often charge tuition in the $5,000 to$7,000 range, seem to be harder hit than independent schools, which tend to charge more and serve more affluent families.

But some schools from both groups are holding steady or even gaining in enrollment. Archbishop Spalding High in Anne Arundel, Glenelg Country School in Howard, Bullis School in Montgomery and Bishop McNamara High in Prince George's all serve more students this school year than last.

Landon School in Bethesda has steady enrollment and a strong applicant pool, said Russ Gagarin, director of enrollment and financial aid. But tuition is more of a stretch than in the past, and a number of families are applying for financial aid for the first time. The school has budgeted a "significant" increase in aid for next year and is holding the annual tuition increase to 1.5 percent. That will keep tuition below $30,000 a year -- "the single biggest way Landon has helped all our families, given the economic times," Gagarin wrote in an e-mail.

Sandy Spring Friends School has slightly higher enrollment this year, but applications for next year are down 4 percent, said Ken Smith, head of the 570-student school. "Our numbers are changing each day," he said in an e-mail, making it "difficult to predict enrollment, and thus, difficult to predict budgets."

The Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington reports a 1 percent drop in enrollment at 83 private schools in Maryland, Virginia and the District -- to 34,417 this school year from 34,754 the previous year. But the association said applications have not declined.

Enrollment in Washington Archdiocese schools dipped about 3 percent this school year, to 29,338. Education leaders said they believe the decline would have been much larger without last year's aid investment, whose aim was to retain families that could no longer afford the tuition and attract new families of limited means.

The archdiocese last month announced a plan to double tuition aid to $4 million for the next school year and extend the application deadline. Officials said more than 5,100 families have applied for aid, up 37 percent from last year, reflecting the impact of the downturn.

The increase in aid means "we don't have to turn families away that want a quality education," said Ben Ketchum, principal of 165-student Holy Redeemer School in the District.


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