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Monday, June 30, 2014

Many private schools facing enrollment pressure, as Villa Augustina closing shows

When Villa Augustina School shut down this month after almost a century educating children in its iconic castle-like home on Mast Road in Goffstown, it cited years of financial struggles after founding organization Sisters of Jesus and Mary pulled out six years ago.

But beyond the specifics, the closing is a reminder of the way the state’s declining numbers of children, the recession, as well as competition from charter schools and homeschooling, is making life difficult for private schools of all types. ...

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When Villa Augustina School shut down this month after almost a century educating children in its iconic castle-like home on Mast Road in Goffstown, it cited years of financial struggles after founding organization Sisters of Jesus and Mary pulled out six years ago.

But beyond the specifics, the closing is a reminder of the way the state’s declining numbers of children, the recession, as well as competition from charter schools and homeschooling, is making life difficult for private schools of all types.

“More prospective parents are coming in, talking about the cost of tuition – we’re definitely hearing that from our folks: ‘Boy, this is a lot of money, tell us why it’s worth it’,” said Steve Clem, executive director of the Association of Independent Schools in New England.

School closings remain rare in New England, but enrollment figures from the New Hampshire Department of Education are sobering: The number of pupils in what are called “nonpublic schools” has fallen by 18 percent, or almost one-fifth, in just a decade.

That’s partly pure demographics, since New Hampshire has fewer school-age children overall, but it also reflects the difficulty some families have paying $4,000 or more a year for primary and second education following the economic crisis that
began in 2008.

Public-school enrollment has declined much less over that same period – down 11 percent in a decade – while homeschooling has continued to grow and public charter schools, which barely existed in 2004, are booming.

Catholic enrollment falls

The biggest issues seem to be at Catholic schools, which have seen enrollment fall by about 30 percent in a decade, said Rev. John Fortin, superintendent of schools for the diocese of Manchester, which covers the entire state.

About 6,500 students are in the state’s Catholic schools, Fortin said. That including 23 schools directly under diocese authority, of which 11 are parish schools, 9 are regional schools and three are high schools, as well as six independent schools recognized as Catholic by the diocese.

The independent Catholic schools include Bishop Guertin High School in Nashua, Presentation of Mary Academy in Hudson, and Villa Augustina.

A big question, Fortin said, is how much of the loss of enrollment is due to people choosing public charter schools. So far, 22 charter schools have been approved in the state, although not all have opened yet.

“We’re still trying to collect data about it,” Fortin said. “Even nationally there’s still debate about whether impact of charter schools is heaviest on private schools or public schools.”

“There are plenty of kids out there: the question is, why aren’t they coming to the Catholic schools. I would assume a lot of it would have to do with affordability,” he said.

Closings are unusual

Despite the enrollment, private school closings remain unusual. Clem said the Association of Independent Schools, which includes a number of New Hampshire schools but is mostly in Massachusetts, has seen two closings since the recession began in 2008.

“It would be safe to say that in both cases they were at a pretty fragile place before the recession,” he added, saying that “smaller, newer, particularly elementary schools, those folks are definitely more vulnerable.”

New Hampshire has 149 non-public schools as of June, a number that may change slightly by the start of the next school year but not significantly different than years ago.

“I don’t think we have seen many independent schools closing. There have been parochial schools that have closed, or combined, and we all went through concerns when (the recession of) 2008 hit, but people have taken great steps and I’m not seeing a decline,” said Kent Bicknell, principal of Sant Bani School in Sanbornton and a member of the state’s Nonpublic School Advisory Council for three decades.

In general, elementary schools are more financially vulnerable because they’re less likely to have endowments, making them heavily dependent on tuition and thus vulnerable to swings in enrollment.

“Endowments typically come from alums, and elementary school alums tend to forget about you,” said Clem, of the independent schools association.

Presentation of Mary Academy

Even schools that are doing well recognize this, like Presentation of Mary Academy in Hudson, recognize this need.

The academy has opened another first grade due to growing enrollment – it has about 460 students, four times the size of Villa Augustina, and a $5 million operating budget. It preparing to build a $1.5 million athletic field as part of expansion plans, and has hopes for a gymnasium to go with its 88-year-old main building, on 90 acres on Lowell Road in south Hudson.

Importantly, it is still owned and operated by the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary – Villa Augustina lost the backing of its founding religious order.

But even so, said Sister Maria Rosa, the principal, Presentation of Mary has established an endowment fund to help protect it down the road, and keeps a sharp eye on trends.

“We’re always studying the demographics. We established a 3-year-old program, and a 4-year-old program ... really studying what are the needs of your two-child family, both career mom and dad,” she said.

Pressure

One potential method for helping private schools is New Hampshire’s Business Tax Credit Scholarship, established to help students attend private or out-of-district schools. It went live Jan. 1 but is on hold, awaiting the result of a lawsuit filed by several groups who say it violates the Constitutional separation of church and state by providing public aid to religious schools.

Cultural shifts also affect the private-school landscape.

“Several of our newer members have been small Montessori schools. They are often started by groups of parents, then evolve over time to having a board, a head, start thinking about accreditation,” said Clem of the New England schools association.

Technology is also a factor: Internet resources have made homeschooling much easier in the past decade, connecting like-minded communities and providing college-level materials for free.

In fact, private schools are facing many of the same pressures that private colleges are facing. Economic pressure makes it harder to enroll even as social changes and new technology creates alternatives, and colleges with small endowment face trouble, such as Chester College, which closed in 2012.

“The pressures is going to be there, no question,” said Clem. “But our sense is, looking at data, there are still plenty of folks out there that can afford private schools and who want them. We have to get them in the door.”

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).