Private School Enrollment Falls with Economy

By Beacon Staff

Private school enrollment is down in Flathead County, and several administrators believe the tight economy has finally forced many families to cut tuition expenses.

The latest annual report from the Flathead County Superintendent of Schools office showed enrollment declines in all but one of the county’s private elementary schools and all but one of the private high schools from the 2009-2010 school year to 2010-2011.

Some public schools also lost students, but not to the degree that the private institutions did. With a total of 9,156 kids enrolled in public elementary schools, a loss of even 10 kids isn’t as significant as it would be in the private school population, which totals 1,070 this year.

Senior Colleen Trageser, right, visits her locker in the briefly crowded Stillwater Christian School hallway between classes.

At Stillwater Christian School, enrollment dropped by 47 elementary students from last year to this year’s total of 151. The school saw its numbers peak in 2005, when it reached 216 students.

Stillwater Superintendent Dan Makowski believes this year’s sharp drop is directly related to the Flathead’s down economy, and that most families held on as long as they could before finally having to trim their private school expenses.

“I think it really is the economy catching up with our families,” Makowski said. “Last year we maintained our enrollment. This year, I think we probably suffered the loss of two years’ worth.”

Most of the losses were in the younger grades. Stillwater Christian lost eight high school students this year. Makowski said parents are more apt to pull a student at a younger age because they are more than likely just starting out financially as a family and in the child’s educational career.

It is a difficult decision for most parents, he said, due to the tight-knit nature of the Stillwater community.

“Generally the people are fairly committed; I think it’s just the extent of this economy that’s made it hard,” Makowski said. “We have tremendous loyalty in our families.”

The county’s largest private elementary school, St. Matthew’s Catholic School in Kalispell, saw the 65-student decrease in enrollment this year.

Patrick Haggarty, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Helena, said he expected to see fewer students at St. Matthew’s due to the economy, but not to this extent.

“We anticipated a decrease, but certainly not the decrease we got,” Haggarty said.

While he believes the Flathead’s economy played a role in the drop, Haggarty also noted that St. Matthew’s eighth grade class last year was bigger than the incoming kindergarten class. He also cited some social pressures for students to leave St. Matthew’s to join Kalispell Middle School to get acclimated for high school.

“It was a little bit of a perfect storm,” Haggarty said.

At Trinity Lutheran Elementary, where a 14-student decrease from last year’s enrollment brings the total number of students to 148, interim principal Ken Holste painted a similar financial picture.

Art teacher Barbara Beckwith, center, looks over an artwork-in-progress with high school students Samantha Auger, left, and Abby Carlson at Stillwater Christian School in Kalispell.

“From what we have experienced, the people, the families that have withdrawn for the most part have had to do so because of the economy, lost jobs or reduced hours,” Holste said.

Holste, who also teaches eighth grade, said the last two years were particularly tough on enrollment, especially when compared to the boom years earlier in the decade.

“It was a bigger jump than it has been in the past,” Holste said. “In the early 2000s, the economy was pretty strong; we had waiting lists in every grade.”

According to county data, Trinity Lutheran Elementary had 214 students in 2001, the highest student body count in the last 10 years. This year’s enrollment is down to 148, the lowest in the decade of data provided.

Kalispell Montessori Elementary lost 10 students this year, bringing total enrollment to 69. Administrator Michelle Talus said the biggest hit actually came at the beginning of the 2009 school year, when enrollment dropped from 100 students to 79.

“I think the economy hit more the previous year for us,” she said.

Low application numbers also present a challenge for private schools. Makowski noted that tuition can cause some families to reconsider applying. But fewer inquiries and applicants means the school has a smaller base to build future class sizes.

Makowski said there is financial aid available through the school’s endowment program. Stillwater Christian provides about $125,000 in financial aid every year, he said, and aid levels are now determined through a third-party system, much like in college or university settings.

But he said that there has not been a significant increase in demand for the scholarship program, despite the economic strains on most families.

“Some people just didn’t ask or didn’t feel like they could even maintain the tuition (with help),” Makowski said.

Falling enrollment rates have a direct impact on Stillwater Christian’s budget, Makowski said. Losing 10 students could mean a loss of $40,000 in tuition and fees, he said, adding that the school is working on addressing costs and staffing.

At Trinity Lutheran, Holste said families also have financial aid options and tuition is applied on a graduated scale depending on how many children from the same family are enrolled.

Support from Trinity Lutheran Church helps keep the school afloat in troubled times, Holste said.

“Because it’s also a Lutheran school and owned and operated by Trinity Lutheran Church, there’s a support base there from the church that some private schools do not have,” he said.

A student at recess runs past a window where winter coats and clothing are seen stored in a cubby section of Stillwater Christian School in Kalispell.

St. Matthew’s operates on a cost-based, needs-based tuition system, Haggarty said, and the school offers tuition assistance each year.

Of the families that chose to leave Stillwater Christian, Makowski said there appeared to be a 50-50 split between enrolling in public school and deciding to home school.

According to county data, home school student numbers are up; elementary students increased from 350 in the 2009-2010 school year to 374 students in 2010-2011 and high school students are up to 75 this year from 2009-2010’s 48.

At Trinity Lutheran, Holste said he thought most of the families chose to enroll their children in public schools.

“Only a few have made the choice to home school,” he said.

Eleven of the of the county’s 19 public elementary schools saw increases in enrollment from last year. Kalispell schools had the largest jump with 110 new students. Conversely, three out of the four districts lost high school students, with Kalispell being the exception by gaining 44.

With numbers trending downward for private schools, Makowski said Stillwater Christian is hopeful that the worst is over, but understands that next year will most likely present similar challenges.

“I think we’re probably in for another tough year here,” Makowski said.

Trinity Lutheran school is not anticipating another drop in enrollment, Holste said, but he hopes they hold steady into the 2011-2012 school year. However, since he recently took over as interim principal, Holste said he does not have a feel for how next year will go yet.

At Kalispell Montessori Elementary, Talus said the biggest enrollment declines seem to be behind them, but it is a waiting game until she knows for sure.

“I think that we’re kind of in a plateau; we’ve not had any more big drops,” Talus said. “We’ll see how it goes in the spring.”

Haggarty said he is confident and optimistic about the future of St. Matthew’s, and small class sizes are part of the school’s appeal.

“The worst is here and now it’s just a matter of re-stabilizing,” Haggarty said.

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