FAYETTEVILLE -- School start dates, learning models and early childhood programs are contributing to changing enrollments at private schools during the coronavirus pandemic, administrators said.
"Even outside the context of the pandemic, sometimes even the best public school systems aren't the best fit for a child in a particular time of his or her life," said Myra McGovern, National Association of Independent Schools vice president of media.
The nonprofit association provides research and trend analysis, leadership and governance guidance and professional development opportunities for leaders of more than 1,900 schools and school associations in the U.S. and abroad, according to the association's website.
Arkansas had about 160 private schools serving more than 19,000 students as of April 2020, according to the Arkansas Department of Education website. Washington and Benton counties had some 18 private schools with more than 3,300 students enrolled, according to the website.
The average private school tuition in Arkansas is approximately $5,834 per year, compared to the national average of $11,004, according to the Private School Review, a website detailing private schools, their benefits and application processes.
One-third of private schools nationally reported gains in enrollment for the 2020-2021 school year in a survey done the week of Sept. 7 by the association, McGovern said.
Thaden School serves students in sixth through 12th grade in Bentonville and had 20 more students enrolled this year than last, said Lisa Herschbach, deputy head of school. The school has 254 students enrolled, she said.
Tuition at the school ranges from $2,600 to about $26,800 annually and is determined by the income level of each family, according to the school's website.
"Our current enrollment falls very close to our target enrollment for the year," Herschbach said. "Our plan from the beginning was to grow incrementally until we reach about 540 students total in grades six through 12."
School began Aug. 24, the same as public school districts in the region, but using an entirely online learning model in the interest of student and staff safety, Herschbach said.
"We are at liberty to do that, because we are an independent school," she said. "We are not required to open in the same way that the district schools may have been."
Thaden School resumed on-campus general instruction programs Wednesday, barring any substantial increase in regional covid-19 infections, she said. Families can use only online learning if that remains the best fit for their student, she said.
"I can't, in the absence of a crystal ball, predict what will happen," she said, noting school safety measures have been put in place to mitigate the spread of the covid-19 virus.
Bentonville School District had 89 cases of covid-19 since the school year began, Fayetteville had 78, Springdale had 214 and Rogers had 134 as of Thursday, according to district websites. The districts' data include students, staff and faculty.
Shiloh Christian School began school Aug. 14 using in-person and online learning models and added about 100 students this year, said Brian Dunaway, communications and technology director.
The school has about 1,000 students from pre-K through 12th grade, has campuses in Rogers and Springdale and costs about $8,000 to attend annually, Dunaway said.
Interest in attending the school grew when state school district start dates were postponed from Aug. 13 to Aug. 24, Dunaway said.
"When you have two parents working in the home, you really are in a bind," he said. "How do you take care of your child when your work life depends on nine months out of the year them being in a school?"
Heather King, 38, leads talent management for Walmart International and has a second-grader and a fourth-grader at The New School in Fayetteville, she said. Both previously attended Marymount International School in Paris prior to moving to Bentonville in the spring.
King said she looked for a school with curriculum similar to what her children experienced in France and smaller class sizes that offered in-person learning.
"One parent can't manage two kids' online learning," King said. "It's not fun. It wasn't great for anybody."
The average class size at The New School is about 12 students, said Nancy Lang, head of school.
King said she felt smaller class sizes would mean schools less apt to shift to online learning.
"When you have 30 kids in a class verses seven, like my daughter, it's just more people you're exposed to," she said. "There is a higher likelihood that they're going to come in contact with someone who has covid or someone in their family who has covid."
Working parents factor into private school enrollment decreases in Northwest Arkansas as well, administrators said.
The New School has experienced a drop in enrollment, Lang said.
The school's highest enrollment was 400 students from early childhood through 12th grade, with about 343 enrolled this year, she said.
New School students started the school year Aug. 13 using in-person and online learning models, Lang said. Tuition at the school ranges from $15,000 to $19,000, she said.
The most significant decrease in enrollment is in the early childhood program, Lang said.
"We suspect it's due in part to the fact that we did close the entire campus in March to on-campus learning," Lang said, noting working parents often rely on early childhood programs as a form of child care.
Reopening the school in August after some parents found early childhood care in the interim is a likely factor, she said.
"At this moment, there aren't really any negative impacts on our community," Lang said. "In the long run, of course, our goal is to increase enrollment to pre-covid numbers."
The decrease in students was enough to cancel one of the pre-K programs at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School in Rogers, said Alice Stautzenberger, principal.
Classes began for the school's pre-K to eighth grade students Aug. 13 using in-person and virtual learning models, she said. Tuition at the school ranges from about $4,234 to $7,056, she said.
Enrollment at St. Vincent de Paul dropped from about 400 students to about 360, Stautzenberger said, noting the most significant drop in enrollment occurred in the school's part-time, pre-K program for 3-year-olds.
"Obviously, those are parents who didn't need their children to be somewhere everyday," she said, adding parents who use the part-time service typically don't work.
The school has a waiting list for full-time, pre-K care, she said. The school isn't able to meet the need at this time because of space constraints instituted during the pandemic, Stautzenberger said.
Some families with kindergartners and first-graders also decided to go to other schools because St. Vincent de Paul didn't offer the virtual learning model for pre-K through first-grade students, Stautzenberger said.
"We did not think that was the ideal way to teach pre-K through first grade students," she said. "We miss these families and hope they are having a successful experience with their all-virtual choice and hope they will come back post-pandemic."
Explore your options
Learn more about regional private school learning opportunities online at https://www.privateschoolreview.com/featured-schools-payment?gclid=CjwKCAjwq_D7BRADEiwAVMDdHl_jsELaMz_6QCYrg6bo6f9-m6YmZ3OSxEDshpotjy8krY6ORo_RrRoCskAQAvD_BwE.
Source: Private School Review
NWA Democrat-Gazette reporter Alex Golden contributed to this report. Mary Jordan can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @NWAMaryJ.