Jan. 10, 2011
With public schools as broke as ever and taking a beating in the media, it’s easy to imagine an exodus of families making a mad dash for private schools.
On the contrary, private schools in California have been losing students in record numbers, and the South Bay is no exception.
Since hitting a peak in 2001-02, the number of students attending private schools in the South Bay has plunged nearly 25 percent to just above 20,000 – the lowest number since at least 1999, according to a Daily Breeze analysis of data provided by the California Department of Education.
Although the rise of public charter schools and home-schooling factor into the decline, the biggest culprit is by far the economy, say many South Bay private school educators.
“People have lost their jobs and/or homes – many have been forced to move out of the area,” said Tom Sheck, an administrator with the K-8 Coast Christian School in Redondo Beach, where enrollment fell from 275 to 150 in just three years. “We’re hanging on by the grace of God, indeed we are.”
Across California, private school enrollment dropped by 18 percent from 2000-01 to 2008-09, according to the California Department of Education. That’s compared with a 3 percent rise over the same period in California’s K-12 public school system. From 2007-08 to 2008-09 alone, the statewide private school tally fell 4.3 percent.
But the degree to which certain areas have lost students varies widely, depending largely on how battered they were by the recession, or how quickly housing prices have risen in middle-class communities, officials say.
In the South Bay, enrollment has held steady in areas like affluent Manhattan Beach, where the head count has gone up. Hardest hit have been Hawthorne and Inglewood, which have seen enrollments cut in half over the past decade. The portion of Los Angeles that sits in the South Bay – home to about one-fifth of all private school students in the South Bay – has also seen a major drop.
Still, even when factoring out the cities of Inglewood and Los Angeles, private school enrollment in the South Bay has dwindled by 17percent in a decade.
At some schools, the decline has been too much to bear. Recent closures include the K-8 Holy Family School in Wilmington – which served 200 students as late as 2004 – and South Bay Lutheran High School in Inglewood.
Lucas Fitzgerald, principal of Pacific Lutheran High School in Torrance, insists that the decline isn’t about quality.
“If it was quality, there would be no public schools,” he said. “I went to a public middle school and public high school – there are some great public schools. But on average they don’t stack up to private schools.”
To underscore his point, Fitzgerald points to statistics touted by the Council for American Private Education showing that private school students generally outperform their public school peers. For instance, in 2005, the average score for a public school student on the SAT verbal section was 505, compared with 539 among religious school students.
Parochial school educators also like to point out that four of the nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court are products of a Catholic education.
“It really has provided public servants,” said Kathleen Gorze, principal at St. Catherine Elementary in Torrance.
However, in 2006, a widely publicized study by the U.S. Department of Education under the Bush administration concluded that public school students fared slightly better in math and reading than their private school counterparts, when socioeconomic differences are factored out.
Debates over educational superiority notwithstanding, there are some empirical benefits to private schools.
For instance, in Torrance, the average class size at the four public high schools has surpassed 40 students, and the length of the year has been truncated by five days, to 175. At Bishop Montgomery High, a Catholic school in Torrance, class sizes are in the mid-20s, and the school year is still 180 days. At Pacific Lutheran High, class size is down to 15.
One private school where business is booming is the K-12 South Bay Faith Academy in Redondo Beach. At this evangelically affiliated school, enrollment has doubled in a decade, to about 500. But its popularity is perhaps more a measure of the home-schooling model. That’s because the academy is a gathering point for home- schooled students, who typically come to campus once every other week to take an elective.
Annual tuition at the academy runs around $350, which is highly affordable, although the home-schooling curriculum can easily cost $2,000.
Also bucking the trend is the 64-year-old American Martyrs Catholic School in Manhattan Beach, where annual tuition runs about $5,000. Here, enrollment has risen steadily over a decade, from about 450 to 650.
In Manhattan Beach, whose public school district last year posted the third-highest test scores of all K-12 districts in California, religious values are often the major distinguishing point for private school families.
“(The Catholic school) fits with the environment that we are trying to have at home and the church,” said Kellie Kendall, president of the school’s parent association. “They’re including a similar message everywhere, in terms of our faith.”
There is some evidence that private schools are benefiting some from the ongoing malaise in the public system. In particular, the rate of the decline has slowed significantly over the past year, said Ron Reynolds, executive director of California Association of Private School Organizations.
“When you hear everybody talking about increased class sizes and the loss of arts education, that has an effect,” he said. “We’re not happy about it, but it might induce private school parents to think twice before removing their children.”
Indeed, Sheck at Coast Christian said his school has experienced a mid-year bump in enrollment.
“Many families have come to us to express discontent with class sizes and cuts,” he said.
Some South Bay private schools are taking measures to counter the declines. Pacific Lutheran High in Torrance has frozen its annual tuition at $6,300 for two years. Normally, the school boosts tuition by about 5 percent every year.
At Bishop Montgomery, where tuition is $7,100, the school has boosted the amount of money it raises from foundations and individuals to provide tuition assistance for struggling families.
Still, the Catholic school’s enrollment has dropped by about 100 students in four years, to 1,100 in the past school year.
But the principal at Bishop Montgomery Rosemary Libbon said she isn’t worried.
“I really don’t agonize over that,” she said. “If you work at what you do, if you work at doing a good job and being the best you can be, then my experience is that the students will come.”