Monday, January 19, 2009

Economy hitting private schools hard

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While public schools brace for bad news from state politicians because of the budget deficit, private schools already have gotten word from their own chief funders -- the parents of their students.

Minnesota has more than 500 private schools with combined enrollment of 80,000 students, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. Almost all of them have reason to be concerned about their finances in the coming months.

The epidemic of layoffs and a deepening recession mean that private schools are worrying that job losses or fears of job losses will prevent families from meeting tuition payments or convince them they can't afford a private education.

Some are like Michaela Bisanz, who put two of her kids through Catholic schools and has two more enrolled. Bisanz has been through a divorce, and her former spouse has lost a job, but for now she is keeping her daughter at Cretin-Derham Hall and her son at Highland Catholic School, both in St. Paul.

"I want to give my kids every opportunity I can to learn about their faith," said Bisanz, who lives in St. Paul. "It's more important to us, I guess, than a new car or vacations."

The crunch has schools closely considering their annual tuition increases, tapping perennial donors to give more and stepping up marketing to persuade families that private schools remain good bargains.

"The fear is that, if unemployment increases next year, it could significantly affect enrollment in the following year," said Terry Campbell, administrator at New Life Academy, a Christian school in Woodbury. "Also, we are having a few families facing layoffs, and they are beginning to question their ability to pay tuition."

Most private schools will get a better picture of next fall's attendance over the next few weeks as they begin taking enrollment applications.

The biggest effect on the schools thus far is a higher level of financial aid requests, say private school officials. The need is increasing at the same time that donors are curtailing their giving, often because of stock market losses. . . .

Family help

The fund that Cretin-Derham Hall uses to help subsidize tuition is down because of the sharp stock market decline, said Richard Engler, president and principal of the school. "We're looking at a smaller increase in tuition than normal," Engler said. "But also smaller increases in salary and benefits. . . ."

Some parents have begun tapping their own parents, school officials say.

"More grandparents are helping out with tuition than ever before," says Allen Labitzky, principal at King of Grace Lutheran School in Golden Valley. Other grandparents are playing the secret Santa role and dropping by the school with checks to be applied to their grandchildren's accounts, Labitzky said.

That's how Bisanz is making do -- with help from her family and community through donations made to Cretin-Derham's education foundation to pay the school's $9,300 annual tuition. . . .

Marketing themselves

Helping with tuition is one thing. Marketing themselves is another strategy private schools are employing.

Last fall, Mount Hope-Redemption Lutheran School in Bloomington made its first mass marketing push by sending full color fliers stressing their values-laden education to 30,000 homes in Bloomington, Burnsville and Eagan.

"You definitely feel the impact" of the recession, said Principal David Polzin. "Enrollment is down."

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which includes 103 schools in the state, has strengthened is marketing campaign by taking out billboards locally that read: "You can afford a Catholic education."

It has also added radio ads in addition to its annual television advertising campaign, telling viewers that the schools "integrate faith, service and academic excellence," and inviting them to visit a school.

The archdiocese also has hired a full-time marketing person to work with the schools to improve their websites and to better identify potential student families.

"We're going to keep these schools affordable, accessible and viable," said Marty Frauenheim, the archdiocese's superintendent of education. . . . Star Tribune


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