By Amy Wenk
With admission applications steady at many institutions and recruiting efforts attracting more prospective students, local private schools seem to be weathering the economic storm.
But it is too early to be sure about the 2009-10 school year because applications are still being accepted, and many administrators are planning for the worst.
“We are kind of holding our breath,” said Debbie Lange, the director of admissions at The Lovett School in Buckhead. The number of applications is “consistent over the past two years, but we don’t know how that is going to hold.”
A decline in enrollment reduces operating funds because tuition provides most of a school’s budget (generally at least 70 percent).
“We are preparing for a scenario in which we have a full enrollment,” said Stan Beiner, the head of The Epstein School in Sandy Springs. “And we are also preparing for a budget if we don’t have full enrollment because we do not know … how the economy is going to impact.”
Rising demand for financial aid and declining endowments also make schools wary.
“If there are problems or changes, it will be reflected next (school) year,” said Paul Stockhammer, the headmaster of Brandon Hall School in Sandy Springs and president of the Georgia Private Education Council. “There will be effects, and that effect will depend on the school.”
He added: “From a parent’s point of view, it may mean they think twice as they look, are a little more selective and probably look for the best buy.”
Administrators are confident parents will make education a priority.
“I think people invest in education for a lifetime, and they make sacrifices to make sure their children are in the best educational environment possible,” said Rosetta Gooden, the director of admissions at The Galloway School in Buckhead. “I think that will continue to happen this year.”
The application deadline for most schools is in February, with student decisions due by April.
Atlanta International School in Buckhead and Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School in Sandy Springs are among those on target for applications. “We are right where we’ve been in ’07 and ’06, so that is reassuring,” said Christopher Pomar, Holy Innocents’ director of admissions. “We received a pretty large number each of those two years, records actually.”
Kristin Baty, the director of admissions at Trinity School, said applications are increasing at the Buckhead academy, which enrolls 589 children from 3 years old to sixth grade and gets more than 400 applications a year.
But Marjorie Mitchell, the director of admissions at The Westminster Schools in Buckhead, said applications are a little behind last year. “We are not off so much that we are letting go of any plans that we have in place,” she said. “I think we are in pretty good shape. I think we are going to have a little bit less demand because a lot of people were already on the edge making tough sacrifices.”
Epstein also is off to a slow start. But Beiner said he thinks the prospective families paying visits are “very seriously committed to coming to the school. … We may get less inquiries, but we may not get less applications.”
Prospective families learn more about private schools through open houses and school tours. Several institutions report record turnouts.
“That is one of the gratifying trends we have seen,” Pomar said. He estimates the number of campus visitors to Holy Innocents’ is up 20 percent from last year and almost 100 percent from the year before.
The Heiskell and Galloway schools are seeing similar trends.
“I wasn’t expecting many people because of the economy, but we had, I would say, standing room only in both of our open houses,” said Virginia Peebles, Heiskell’s admissions director and preschool principal. She said the two open houses each drew about 50 people to the Buckhead school, which enrolls 350 children from 2 years old to eighth grade.
Gooden said a Dec. 7 open house attracted 350 visitors to Galloway, which is about half the current enrollment and a record for the school.
The Lovett School for the first time advertised its December open houses on radio. Usually, the school relies on print ads, Lange said.
Galloway is conducting more tours this admission season. Gooden also noted more outreach through parent-to-parent contact and additional opportunities to visit classrooms.
The recession “has caused headmasters and boards of trustees and administrators to do more careful planning,” Stockhammer said.
“All the budget managers at the school are working hard to cut costs for the remainder of this year and do all we can to carry a surplus into 2009-2010 school year because no one knows what to expect,” Holy Innocents’ Pomar said. “We may see a slightly larger attrition rate than normal.”
Heiskell decided not to raise tuition. “We are a good bit cheaper than the other private schools in the Atlanta area,” Peebles said. “We are not building anything here. We just want to provide Christian education at the most reasonable price that we know how to offer and still pay our teachers.”
Unlike Heiskell, many private schools rely on endowments. Poor market conditions have slashed their investment income.
Westminster’s endowment, which stood at $242 million June 30, is down significantly, Mitchell said. The fund provides 20 percent of the school’s operating budget.
“We must plan for decreased allocations from our endowment over the next few years and recognize that some new initiatives will probably need to be deferred,” the school’s president, Bill Clarkson, wrote in a Dec. 19 online post. “The message to ‘control and reduce costs wherever possible’ has been clearly communicated, although extreme cuts are not anticipated.”
The challenge of raising money during a recession has stopped or delayed construction plans. The Epstein School, for example, cited economic conditions when it decided to shelve its expansion proposal last month.
Small size or special programs can protect schools from economic pressures.
Rivercliff Lutheran School in Sandy Springs will offer fourth grade next fall for the first time since opening in 2001.
“We can only get bigger,” said Principal Kris Hoffman, noting that applications are similar to last year with around 30.
She hopes for about 40 students in 2009-10, up from 28 now and 16 last year.
The 250-student Schenck School in Buckhead needs to do little recruiting because it caters to dyslexic kindergartners through sixth-graders, spokeswoman Charlotte Mullen said.
“We actually could probably fill our school many times over because there is such a great need for it in the Atlanta area,” she said. “Families will seek us out.”
Brandon Hall also has a niche. “We are more of a special-purpose school,” Stockhammer said. “We deal with underachievers and learning disabilities and English as a second language.”
Patricia Craft-Heuer, admissions director at First Montessori of Atlanta in Sandy Springs, credits the school’s reputation for its “so far, so good” outlook. The Southeast’s oldest Montessori teaches 250 1½- to 14-year-olds.
“We feel pretty solid about our operations here,” she said. “It’s a little bit easier for us, because we have that reputation ahead of us, than it is a new school.”
Demand for financial aid
Administrators agree more families will need financial help next school year.
“We anticipate that some families will need financial assistance for the first time as a result of the economic downturn,” said Robert Brindley, the headmaster of Atlanta International School, which will try to meet that need.
Principal Patty Childs said St. Jude the Apostle Catholic School strives to keep costs reasonable and is “always looking for opportunities to partner with companies or look for grant opportunities to help our families.”
Galloway is preparing to offer more financial aid in the Upper School, Gooden said.
Beiner is hopeful that the state’s student scholarship organization (SSO) program will help. The program grants tax deductions for donations to SSOs, which provide scholarships to children who are new to private schools.
Westminster is looking to cut costs across the board. “We have traditionally been able to meet 100 percent of need,” Mitchell said, “so we are just trying to plan ahead and look for ways to ensure that we can continue to do that.”