Transfers From Private to Public Schools Rising in D.C. Area

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 2009

At the end of August, Gabriel Liegey left his crisp school uniform gathering dust in his closet in favor of jeans and T-shirts. Natalie Medrano and her sister traded a long drive to private school in Frederick for a ride on the school bus with other kids on their block. And Lawson Hamilton gave up an eighth-grade class of 26 for a freshman class of almost 500.

All four joined the rising number of Washington area students who have switched out of private schools this year as financial pressures and the availability of good public schools have made the option irresistible to some.

In Montgomery County, the only jurisdiction in the area that tracks movement between private and public schools, the net number of students who jumped from private to public schools rose to 727 in the 2008-09 school year, according to preliminary figures. That is more than double the number in 2006-07 and the largest total since the county began tracking the numbers in 1988.

Other public schools across the region reported a rise in the number of families transferring in.

"We wouldn't sacrifice our children's education, but we certainly thought this is the time, if any, to check out this incredible school," said Nisi Hamilton, whose son, Lawson, started Walt Whitman High School in August after graduating from the eighth grade at Little Flower, a Catholic school that is also in Bethesda.

Hamilton said two of her four children are in college. Her husband started a second job as a real estate agent just as the financial markets crashed a year ago, adding to his demanding duties as a news cameraman. Hamilton sells a line of clothing out of her home.

"Money is tight, and the economy [stinks]," Hamilton said. "We're here paying taxes for these great schools, and he just seemed like he could handle it," she said.

Many private schools are struggling. Last year, the Archdiocese of Washington closed two schools in Southern Maryland. At least two local independent schools, the Newport School and Thornton Friends School, both in Silver Spring, closed over the summer, as did at least one small religious school, Ambassador Baptist Church Christian School in Anacostia, which taught dozens of D.C. voucher students. And Progressive Christian Academy in Temple Hills filed for bankruptcy late last month, citing financial difficulties from declining enrollment, although it remains open.

Still, serious enrollment problems at private schools appear to be fairly limited, something administrators credit largely to increased financial aid on their part and budget cuts in public schools that have swollen class sizes and reduced services.

Preliminary numbers from the 84 schools of the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington show enrollment down 1 percent from last year. All the schools have bolstered their financial aid budgets this year, according to association director Thomas Toch.

A June survey of 213 schools across the country by the National Association of Independent Schools found that the total amount of financial aid awarded for the 2009-10 school year skyrocketed 41 percent from last year.

Enrollment at the D.C. Archdiocese's schools also dropped 1 percent. In Maryland, enrollment at those schools dropped by 3 percent, said Kathy Dempsey, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese.

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