By Michaela Kron
Last year, with the tightening economy, many Atlanta-area private schools were bracing themselves for lower enrollment numbers during the 2009-10 school year.
But now, in the middle of the year, some schools in the Sandy Springs, Buckhead and Brookhaven areas have actually seen steady or slightly higher enrollments and more interest in their programs.
“I think what we are discovering is that the enrollments as a whole are fairly stable,” said Jeff Jackson, the executive director of the Georgia Independent School Association. “I do believe we will continue to see stabilization and slow but steady growth in our schools.”
Changing or steady enrollment
Marjorie Mitchell, the director of admissions at The Westminster Schools in Buckhead, said she feels positive about the unexpected higher enrollment numbers at Westminster and other private schools.
“I just think that education is one of those investments that is recession-proof,” Mitchell said. “It’s the one thing you can put your money in that you know won’t be devalued.”
At Westminster, enrollment increased by almost two percent this year after the school accepted more students than usual to ensure at least a steady enrollment. According to Mitchell, this year’s enrollment of 1,848 is “unusually high” for Westminster.
“We’ve been pleasantly surprised, as other schools have been, that parents have made sacrifices and have valued education above other things,” Mitchell said.
Other schools, such as The Lovett School and Atlanta International School, both of which are located in Buckhead, have also seen slightly higher enrollments this year.
At Lovett, enrollment increased by about three percent, to 1,550, since the 2007-08 school year due to a higher yield of acceptances.
“It came as a surprise to us that we had a large number of families choose to come to Lovett, given the current economic situation,” said Debbie Lange, the director of admissions at Lovett.
Atlanta International also saw a three-percent increase in enrollment, climbing from 952 students last year to 982 students this year. According to Headmaster Kevin Glass, this year’s enrollment is the largest in the school’s 25-year history.
“Obviously, it’s a very pleasant surprise,” Glass said, adding that the school was expecting enrollment to remain flat this year.
Glass said Atlanta International occupies a unique niche among Atlanta private schools because many of the families who enroll their children at the school work for international companies and business and have relocated to Atlanta. As a result, Atlanta International offers rolling admission and is accustomed to receiving new students throughout the school year.
Although enrollment increased at Atlanta International this year, Glass said he anticipates the numbers will remain steady next year.
At The Galloway School, although overall enrollment remained steady this year, the upper school’s enrollment grew by about 12 percent.
“That’s the area of the school where we want to grow,” said Rosetta Gooden, the director of admissions at Galloway.
Enrollment at The Weber School, a Jewish high school in Sandy Springs, has also remained steady, with about 220 students.
According to Rise Arkin, the director of admissions at Weber, the school has received many inquiries from interested families, and she anticipates that enrollment will increase next year.
“I think there’s really strong support for the school and interest in a Jewish community high school,” Arkin said.
Enrollment at Marist School in Brookhaven has also remained essentially the same as last year, with a very slight increase from 1,070 to 1,077.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” said James Byrne, the director of admissions and financial aid at Marist. “We went into it thinking [enrollment] might go down. I think we were conservative in our budgets, and we were absolutely thrilled that the demand is still here for Marist.”
Byrne said the current enrollment is ideal for the school and is not expecting an increase in numbers next year.
However, while a few private schools have experienced increases in enrollment, some private schools have seen lower enrollments.
At Holy Innocents Episcopal School in Sandy Springs, enrollment decreased by almost three percent, from 1,413 to 1,373. Last year’s enrollment was the largest in the school’s history, said Chris Pomar, the director of admissions at Holy Innocents.
Pomar, who also serves as the president of the admissions group at the Atlanta Area Association of Independent Schools, said the school did not have a higher yield of acceptances this year and attributes the decrease in enrollment to the recession.
Increases in financial aid
Regardless of whether private schools have seen increased, steady or decreased enrollments this year, most of them have paid a common price by increasing the amount of need-based financial aid they provide to families.
Westminster’s financial aid budget has steadily increased over the last few years. This year’s budget of almost $3.37 million marks an approximate 53-percent increase from the 2005-06 financial aid budget of $2.2 million.
According to Mitchell, last year, Westminster reprioritized its full budget and made cuts across the board in response to an increased need for financial assistance among families.
“We had demand that we had not anticipated,” Mitchell said. “It was more important that we kept the students versus the stuff.”
At Marist, where financial aid increased by about a third last year, families were provided with some different tuition payment options, including an extended monthly payment plan. Two years ago, the school introduced a 10-month payment plan, and last year, it was expanded to a 12-month plan.
“We are concerned about families that might have lost their jobs or had a reduced level of salary, and now it’s the second year that they’re trying to live with that,” Byrne said.
At Atlanta International, where about 18 percent of students receive financial aid, financial assistance increased by about 40 percent. Glass said the school is “very planned and thoughtful” when giving financial aid in order to maintain socioeconomic diversity.
Galloway’s financial aid budget has also grown over the years, with an approximate 33-percent increased this past year. “It’s a real reflection of the economy,” Gooden said.
More recruitment efforts
Most private schools rely on recruitment efforts to attract prospective students and families and inform them about the programs they offer.
Like many other schools, Lovett relies on word of mouth from current families and its open houses to recruit new students. A recent open house on Dec. 13 was attended by about 1,000 people, which Lange said was a record. Generally, Lovett’s open houses have drawn about 700 or 800 people.
“What we hope to do is give families as many opportunities as possible to learn about Lovett and to be able to visit the campus and experience what Lovett is all about,” Lange said.
In addition to basic outreach such as open houses and advertising, Weber has parent ambassadors who talk about and promote the school within the community, as well as student ambassadors who discuss their experiences at the school with prospective students and families.
According to Mitchell, Westminster provides a fairly personalized recruitment process by holding parent information sessions three or four times a week, in addition to open houses and more specialized information sessions such as those focusing on arts and athletics.
At Marist, the most significant means of recruiting new students is through word of mouth, Byrne said. In addition, the school relies on tours and shadowing, as well as open houses, all of which Byrne said have been successful.
“So far, numbers seem to be as good as ever for tours [and] shadowing,” he said. “Numbers are very, very good.”