A reality check for a good purpose

By D. Aileen Dodd
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Family trips to Europe postponed. Country club memberships canceled. Luxury SUVs downsized.

Independent school operators, who began the fall semester bracing for the worst, soon discovered that even in difficult financial times a private school education is a value many families weren’t willing to do without. In the economic crunch, when private school enrollment was expected to plummet across the state, several Georgia campuses found themselves coming out even or slightly ahead.

Parents willing to make sacrifices to pay for private school helped to keep more students in dress blazers and plaid skirts this year on growing campuses. In 2009, more than 107,000 Georgia students were enrolled in private schools.

“The industry in Georgia is still in very good shape,” said Jeff Jackson, executive director of Georgia Independent School Association, which saw at least one campus close over the summer. “Our parents are so pleased with their children’s success that they are doing what they can to keep [them] in our schools.”

At Atlanta Girls School, where framed quotes uttered by powerful women line the halls and every student has a school-issued MacBook, more traffic is passing through the cafeteria in sensible shoes. Girls attracted by the school’s academics, its sisterhood of students, the opportunity to launch their own businesses or chart their own course of study, have returned or enrolled for the first time despite the drain on their family’s budget.

Enrollment at Atlanta Girls School has jumped from 174 students to 215 this school year — an increase of about 23.5 percent — while other GISA affiliated schools on average saw a 5 percent decline. Nationally, independent school enrollment dipped slightly, by 1.2 percent.

Senior Ayanna Heaven of Snellville returned to Atlanta Girls School on financial aid hoping to write her own ticket to college. She likes the advantages. She has traveled to London with her class and was one of only a select group invited to tour Apple’s headquarters and discuss product ideas with executives.

“It’s a small school; the opportunities are endless,” Heaven said. “Teachers encourage you to go after what you want, to start things that you are interested in. There aren’t so many people fighting for the top spot.”

Heaven’s return did not come without sacrifice. The whole family pitched in. Her dad, Clive, who has a home repair business, searched for more clients. Family outings at neighborhood hibachi steakhouses were canceled.

Ayanna’s older sister, Shaari, volunteered to leave a Georgia State University dorm and move back home to save money. Ayanna’s mother, Christine, gave up weekly trips to the beauty salon. Instead of spending $100 on a perm and a color treatment, she keeps her hair short and spends $15 at the barbershop.

“I wear a low-maintenance natural look that I can take care of myself,” Christine Heaven said. “I cut back on manis and pedis, I don’t by clothes and shoes like I used to. It is absolutely worth it. Education is a priority. My daughter has benefited from going to AGS. She is well-rounded, socially conscious. She feels like a winner.”

Some savvy schools preserving their brands held down enrollment losses by partnering with parents to make tuition more affordable. Atlanta Girls School, for example, made a conscious effort to keep tuition the same this school year.

Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, which saw a net increase of 36 students districtwide, offered $1 million more in financial aid to help struggling families. School officials are waiting on a $2.5 million windfall in scholarships funded by tax credits to help students next school year.

“Schooling is one of the last things that families are willing to change if their financial circumstances change,” said Myra McGovern, spokeswoman for the National Association of Independent Schools. “Families want to provide stability for their child.”

Increasing aid

At Pace Academy in Atlanta, where enrollment climbed from 995 to 1,115 students, more financial aid was extended to upper-middle-class families reeling from job losses and dwindling bonuses who never needed the help before. “Those who may have been able to afford private school in the past couldn’t because of the economy,” said Claire Strowd, admissions officer. “We encouraged them to apply for financial aid.”

Strowd said her office also launched an aggressive plan to open the door to more students. Those who toured the campus received follow-up phone calls and e-mail blasts inviting them back. “We sent e-mails letting parents know what was going on like, ‘Come to the basketball game tonight,’ and ‘Our musical is next week,’ ” she said. “We really wanted to make sure we would fill the school so we also accepted students at a higher rate.”

Freshman Morgan Frazier, 14, among Pace’s new students, said she left Cobb County Schools because she wanted more face time with her teachers. To make Pace work, her mother, Rhoda Johnson, a former educator, juggled finances, postponed vacations and rented an apartment in Atlanta to cut back on the 45-minute commute from Acworth.

So far, the investment is paying off, Johnson said. “I know she [is getting] an excellent education. Her mid-semester report was so detailed. I was just taken aback about how well they knew her in such a short period of time.”

Cutting comforts

At Wesleyan School in Norcross, where 1,091 students in green polo shirts walk manicured lawns and state athletics championships are collected like souvenirs, families are also cutting back on comforts to cover tuition. The Christian school did its part, increasing financial aid from $450,000 to $600,000 to help. K-12 enrollment is up about 2 percent.

“Some people have moved to a smaller house. They are forgoing maids, people working on their yards and country club memberships,” said Ramona Blankenship, middle school principal. “They were even willing to sell their lake house.”

Headmaster Zach Young sees the enrollment spike as a “miracle,” especially since applications were down and more kids didn’t return because of hardships. Wesleyan’s admissions office and parents sponsored coffee socials in living rooms inviting neighbors to come chat about enrolling.

“God has some purpose for us to have more students here,” Young said. “We serve a different niche.”

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