Published by the Charlotte Observer, August 22, 2012
By Steve Lyttle
After sliding during the recession, enrollment at Charlotte-area private schools has rebounded and could set a record in the 2013-14 academic year.
Despite dealing with tuition bills that can reach $20,000 a year, more parents than ever are sending their children to the more than two dozen private and parochial schools in the region.
Mecklenburg County private-school enrollment slipped nearly 5 percent in the 2010-11 academic year from two years earlier, when a record 19,733 students attended the schools.
But last year’s figure was only 200 students short of 2008-09, and enrollment this year could approach 20,000, officials say.
“In some ways, the recession was good for both the private and public schools. It made all of us sit down and ask, ‘What is our mission?’ ” said Mark Davis, head of school at Covenant Day, the Matthews church-affiliated institution where classes for most students began Tuesday. “It might have made us stronger.”
Administrators say they followed the same pattern as their public-school brethren during the recession. They cut staffing but tried to avoid eliminating teaching positions. They trimmed spending on supplies and put most capital projects on hold.
Parents say they made sacrifices.
Over the past several years, private-school enrollment consistently has accounted for about 11.5 percent of Mecklenburg County students, while Charlotte-Mecklenburg students accounted for about 80.5 percent. The remaining students went to charter schools (which are showing the biggest growth) or were home-schooled.
Benefits exceed sacrifices
Davis says the more established private schools felt less of an impact from the economic downturn.
“They had endowments to help weather the storm,” he said. “The newer schools had to find other ways to cope.”
Hickory Grove Baptist Christian School, which, like Covenant Day has operated for about two decades, made adjustments in 2008 when enrollment fell.
“We lost some students, so we took some proactive measures,” said Head of School G.T. Freeman, whose school opens Wednesday for the year. “We never cut staff, though, and we were able to restore most of what we cut in 2009. Really, it was just a one-year bump. In fact, we’ve made some additions in the last two years.”
Linda and Chris Boone have sons enrolled in the fifth, ninth and 10th grades at Charlotte Christian School, where tuition ranges from about $11,200 for elementary students to more than $16,000 a year for high school.
“My husband’s job is in real estate, so we definitely felt the effects of the economic downturn,” Linda Boone said. “We have chosen to give up some things the past few years to keep our kids at Charlotte Christian School, but the benefits to them far exceed any sacrifices.”
Many parents cite the religious education as an important factor in sending their children to private schools, but others cite reasons such as stronger discipline and a better feeling of community.
Lisa Barlow, admissions director at Covenant Day, where tuition ranges from about $7,800 in elementary school to more than $11,300 in high school, says officials have tried to help parents deal with tuition costs during the recession.
“We made a concerted effort to beef up our financial aid endowment,” said Barlow, who has been at the school for 23 of its 24 years. “I think that made a difference.”
In some cases, there has been growth during the economic downturn. The Mecklenburg Area Catholic Schools opened Christ the King High School in Huntersville last year, and enrollment has increased this year. Freeman says Hickory Grove Baptist Christian has added several athletic and academic programs.
“On the national level, there have been a fair number of private schools that closed,” Covenant Day’s Davis says. “I think the schools that offer a true level of excellence in areas where they can set themselves apart are the ones that succeeded.
“That is also the case with some public schools, where choice is offered.”
Boone says she knows of parents at Charlotte Christian School who have eliminated vacations or cut in other ways to pay for tuition.
“Yes, there have been sacrifices,” she says, “but it has been worth it.”