Clovis News

Enrollment in Valley's private schools declines

Declining enrollment -- as much as 10% at some campuses -- is taking a toll on private schools in the Valley.

A growing number of parents have lost jobs or taken pay cuts and, unable to keep up with tuition, have transferred their children to public and charter schools, officials said.

Private schools say they are being hit even harder than public schools grappling with state budget cuts, because nearly all of their financial support comes from tuition and donations, both of which have declined.

The financial pinch is being felt at both religious and nonreligious schools, forcing many of them to look at new ways to raise money.

For some, it means laying off staff, cutting tuition or finding alternative ways to generate income. For others, it's too late.

Clovis Christian School recently closed its doors. The 113-year-old Fresno Adventist Academy in southeast Fresno is barely hanging on. And San Joaquin Memorial High School, the Valley's largest Catholic school, cut tuition this past school year after enrollment fell to 556, its lowest in 18 years.

"The economy has really killed us," said San Joaquin Memorial Principal Ed Borges.

Borges believes this is the first time Memorial has cut fees. "It was a bold move and a risk," especially now, when schools are struggling, he said.

Annual tuition at the school was $8,100. It is now $6,750 for freshmen, $7,550 for sophomores and $7,950 for juniors and seniors. Borges said Memorial will also beef up financial assistance programs. About 40% of the school's students already receive scholarships and other aid.

State and national statistics show private schools are losing ground as families lose money. Experts peg the annual rate of enrollment losses from 4% to 10%.

In California, private school enrollment has steadily declined in recent years, in part because of competition from charter schools and newly-resurgent public schools.

In addition to charters, Clovis Unified School District -- with several new north Fresno campuses and a winning sports program -- also created more competition for private schools. The district is involved in a marketing campaign to attract more students.

But the decline in private school enrollment accelerated in 2008, and enrollment dropped by 23,468 students in the last school year, said Ron Reynolds, director of the California Association of Private School Organizations. The association is made up of organizations that provide services to 1,400 private schools.

James McManus, executive director of the California Association of Independent Schools, said recent enrollment declines are about the worst in nearly 20 years. The Burbank-based association represents 200 member schools, including more than a dozen church-affiliated schools.

Few schools have lowered tuition, he said. However, McManus said this could change if the economic turmoil continues.

"Sobering," is how Patrick Bassett, president of the National Association of Independent Schools, described the enrollment drop. More than half of his group's schools lost enrollment this year, Bassett told members in February when he delivered his annual report in San Francisco.

He said it could have been worse, but schools staved off disaster with aggressive financial aid -- an increase of about 15% overall. Whether this financial aid commitment can continue is questionable, Bassett said.

While private school leaders blame the economy for driving down enrollment, they also say charter schools -- publicly-funded schools that have flexibility to teach in nontraditional ways -- have taken away some of their students.

San Joaquin Memorial's Borges said University High School, a charter on the Fresno State campus, has become a major competitor.

Some private schools are facing more difficulties than others.

At small Fresno Adventist Academy -- where enrollment typically hovers just above 200 students -- enrollment was down about 10% last year. So far, 177 students are registered for the upcoming school year.

But families are struggling to pay the school's $5,220 tuition. About 47% of the families have lost jobs or sustained pay cuts, said Dan Kittle, the school's principal and pastor. He said 11% have lost their homes.

The majority of students are Adventists and much of the church's growth has been among lower-income groups, especially Hispanics.

Kittle has cut school spending by laying off two teachers and eliminating some support staff. Some services -- including janitorial, maintenance and landscaping -- also have been outsourced, saving up to $30,000 a year.

The school recently launched a fundraising campaign at its 12-area member churches, hoping to get 500 people to contribute $10 a month to the school, which is already subsidized by the churches.

Kittle describes the school's financial position as "fragile."

This has forced him to get creative in finding new ways to make money. "There is nothing that is not on the table," Kittle said.

The school has turned to growing watermelons it plans to sell at local farmers markets.

Local Hmong farmers, who for years have been allowed to use a piece of the school's property for a community garden, helped school officials with planting the melons. There are more than 9,000 plants that could yield anywhere from 15,000 to 25,000 melons, said Keith Tetz, business manager for Adventist Academy. Harvesting should take place in two weeks.

"I've got 40 acres here," said Tetz. "If I'm not producing something, I'm losing money."

School leaders are even considering RV storage on the school's large property on Olive Avenue east of Peach Avenue.

Some schools are more limited in what they can do.

Fresno Christian School can't afford to cut the school's approximately $8,000 tuition -- at least not when it costs more to run the school and enrollment already is down, said Principal Todd Bennett.

Last year, the school had 530 students. So far, 500 students are enrolled for the upcoming school year.

To save money, Fresno Christian cut eight teachers from the close-knit staff. "It was really hard," said Bennett. "They are good people you would hope you could stick it out with." The school also has scaled back on financial aid.

Times have changed and money is tight for everyone, Bennett said. "Even people that have been affluent in the past, owners of construction businesses and car dealerships, are cutting back," he said.

Kittle of Fresno Adventist Academy sees people scaling back more. He worries this year will be another difficult one.

He is constantly fighting rumors that the school is closing, but he isn't giving up.

"I have just an unshaken confidence this school will be here," he said.

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