Some private schools gained students in past 3 years, but gains are a fraction of public school losses

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Though local private schools have seen some gains in overall enrollment the past few years, the gains were modest in comparison with the hundreds of students the Lawrence public school district lost in the same period.

Based on enrollment information the Journal-World was able to gather for the eight private schools that serve elementary, middle school or high school students in the Lawrence area, overall private school enrollment grew by roughly a few dozen students over the past three school years. Those gains happened at a time when the Lawrence public school district was losing hundreds of students.

While consideration is being given to the fact that some families are opting for private school, school board Vice President Shannon Kimball said the private school enrollment data “does not support the narrative that people fled public school for private school during the pandemic,” and instead points to broader issues. Kimball said the district’s enrollment declines — that began before the coronavirus pandemic and that likely have various contributing factors — are not just a pandemic issue or a private school issue.

photo by: Dylan Lysen

School board member Shannon Kimball is pictured in the Lawrence Public Library on Monday, Sept. 16, 2019.

“I think there were some families that made that switch for a variety of reasons,” Kimball said. “… But it’s dozens to hundreds: that doesn’t account for what is really going on in our community as a whole regarding school-age children and what seems to be a pretty substantial decline in the number of families in our community with young children over that time period.”

Private school trends

Among the eight private schools, four saw enrollment gains over the past three years, three saw enrollment declines, and one is at capacity and held enrollment steady. Enrollment information was provided to the newspaper from private school administrators, except in the case of St. John Catholic School, which did not immediately respond. However, data that St. John provided to the Kansas State Department of Education indicates elementary enrollment at the school, which also provides middle school, declined in that time span.

Private schools that saw enrollment gains in the past few years said parents cited various reasons for enrolling their children, including a desire for in-person learning. Some newly enrolled families were also new to the area, moving from out of town or out of state, as opposed to transferring from the public school district.

Veritas Christian School, which serves students prekindergarten through 12th grade, gained about 30 students from the 2020-2021 school year to the 2021-2022 school year, and now has close to 200 students total.

“We’re actually at the highest enrollment we’ve ever had in school history,” Head of School and Elementary Principal Mike Baker said.

Baker said parents of new students have given various reasons for joining, including some who indicated displeasure with Lawrence public schools, but others who moved to Lawrence from out of town. For others, he said the decision was due to a desire to have a Christian education. Baker said the school is in the midst of a campaign to raise funds to build a new elementary school building. He did not immediately have enrollment totals for the 2019-2020 school year.

Corpus Christi Catholic School, which serves students in preschool through eighth grade, also saw increases in enrollment, according to information from the school. From 2019-2020 to 2021-2022, the school added 42 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The school was in-person throughout the pandemic, and the biggest jump was from the 2019-2020 to the 2020-2021 school year, when the school gained 51 students. Though the school lost nine students for this school year, a lot of those enrollment gains held.

Some smaller private, nonreligious schools also saw some gains in enrollment.

Prairie Moon Waldorf School, which serves students in prekindergarten through eighth grade, saw an increase in students over the past three school years. From 2019-2020 to 2021-2022, the school’s K-8 enrollment increased from 43 to 52 students, or by nine students. Administrative Director Jeff Kennedy said the Waldorf curriculum minimizes exposure to media and screens, and last year the school was committed to in-person learning, which is a source of some of the new enrollment. He said other new enrollees came from out of state and were specifically looking for a Waldorf school.

The School of Love, which serves students in kindergarten through seventh grade, increased from six students to 13 students over the past three school years, or by seven students. The school’s founder, Angela Piperidou, said six of the students were gained toward the beginning of the pandemic. However, she said a lot of parents just revisited their own values and beliefs about how they wanted their family to function.

Century School, which serves elementary students, has held steady at about 68 students over the past three school years. Principal Teacher Jon Stutler said enrollment is capped at the school’s capacity, and while the school decreased its enrollment by a few students in the 2020-2021 school year to provide more room for social distancing, it is back up to its usual 68 students for this year.

Meanwhile, two of Lawrence’s larger private schools lost some students over the past few years.

Bishop Seabury Academy, which serves middle and high school students, lost 15 students in that time period. Head of School Don Schawang said the school dropped from 298 to 283 students from the 2019-2020 school year to the 2020-2021 school year, and remained at that level this school year.

Raintree Montessori, which serves elementary and middle school students, also lost some students over the past three years.

Raintree Assistant Head of School Saasha McReynolds Huston said the school’s enrollment was down about 7% from typical enrollment in the 2019-2020 school year, but has rebounded slightly, and for this school year enrollment was down about 5% from typical enrollment. She did not give a headcount, but said Raintree has eight elementary classes and one middle school class. The school’s website states that it averages around 30 students in its elementary classes, meaning the school is likely down about a dozen students from typical enrollment.

Based on the known private school enrollment information, the eight private schools collectively gained about 90 students and lost about 60 students, for a net gain of about 30 students from the 2019-2020 to 2021-2022 school years. Those figures are estimates, since, as previously noted, enrollment numbers for Veritas for the 2019-2020 school year are unknown, and some estimates had to be made for St. John and Raintree schools.

More options

Though the loss of Lawrence school district students to local private schools is not the main factor driving the district’s enrollment declines over the past few years, offering Lawrence families different educational options is among the district’s long-term considerations when it comes to enrollment.

As the Journal-World has reported, the district has discussed the possibility of converting one of its elementary schools into a free public Montessori school as a way to attract additional enrollment over the long term. Other educational options may be considered as well.

For her part, Kimball said she sees the focus of that conversation as a recognition that not all children learn in the same way and not all families’ needs are the same. Kimball said that could mean the district offering a public Montessori program or providing other options, such as arts-based or STEAM-based programs (science, technology, engineering, art and math).

“If there are ways that our district can shape its operations so that we provide more opportunities for families who might be looking for something slightly different than a more traditional classroom, I think that aligns with our mission and vision, that we are here to serve all students regardless of their needs, regardless of their background,” Kimball said.

She added that she thinks it’s the district’s responsibility to consider whether it should be offering additional options for families within the district. She said if that has the added benefit of attracting more families to stay in or come to the district, that’s great, but that it’s really about better meeting student needs.

The district estimates it has lost about $3.2 million in funding for this school year due to the enrollment declines, and school board leaders are working to cut millions of dollars from the district’s budget for next year as a result. Though school closings have been taken off the table for next year, the school board will be deciding on various budget cuts, which include program and staff reductions, as part of its meeting March 28.


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