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Enrollment slide continues

Student numbers hit a five-year low as the rough economy affects families' ability to pay tuition

By Mary Vorsino

LAST UPDATED: 3:45 a.m. HST, Nov 28, 2010

Private school enrollment statewide dropped slightly this year -- to a five-year low of 38,155 students -- in the wake of several school closures and as families continued to search for expenses to cut.

Overall, private school enrollment is down 5 percent from 40,272 students statewide in the 2007-08 school year.

This is the third consecutive year enrollment at private schools has declined.

But educators say there are signs of improvement and some schools have seen enrollment rise thanks in large part to more generous financial aid packages and small or no increases to tuition.

Private school students make up about 17 percent of all school-age children in Hawaii, higher than the national average of 11 percent.

Recently released figures from the Hawaii Association of Independent Schools show private school enrollment statewide dropped about 1 percent this year, compared to the 2009-10 school year.

That translates to 369 fewer students in private schools.

The neighbor islands saw the steepest percentage declines.

Private school enrollment on the Big Island dropped by 5 percent, or 182 students, to 3,457.

On Maui, the number of students attending private school declined by 101 students, or nearly 3 percent.

And Molokai's tiny private school population of 78 students in the 2009-10 school year shrank by nearly one-fourth, to 59.

Oahu saw just a drop of 0.15 percent, with enrollment declining by 45 students to 29,815.

That count includes two new HAIS members added this year. Aiea's Calvary Chapel Christian School, established in 2003, has 115 students. In Mililani, Central Christian School, which opened in 2005, has 36.

PRIVATE SCHOOLS say the declines this year aren't significant overall, and several said they had been bracing for worse.

But they also say three consecutive years of declining enrollment has forced them to make cuts, slow spending and be more cautious about plans for program expansions.

Small schools, especially, have struggled in the economic downturn because they are more reliant on every dollar from student tuition and have small to no endowment or savings cushion.

This year, three private campuses closed because of declining enrollment and increases in the number of students needing financial aid.

Holy Trinity School (with 88 students) and Word of Life Academy (with 260 students) on Oahu both shuttered this summer, as did St. Joseph Grade School (enrollment 82) on Maui.

In Kalihi, St. Theresa School on School Street lost about 15 students this school year, bringing its enrollment to 376.

Head of School Robert Gallagher said the decline was expected as families weather job losses and pay cuts.

He pointed out that about half of the K-8 school's students live in the surrounding community, while the rest are from around the island.

He also said enrollment would have dropped off further if not for increases in financial aid and a decision to freeze tuition this school year at $4,750.

"There's never enough money to help all the families," Gallagher said, adding that the school expects enrollment to go back up in the coming school year as the economy improves.

"We're looking forward to an exciting, bright future," he said.

Amid the news of overall declining enrollment, there are lots of bright spots.

The American Renaissance Academy in Kalaeloa saw enrollment increase this year by about 40 students, to 147.

The school, with pre-kindergarten to 12th-grade students, said that growth was across the board. Tuition is $12,200 for middle and high school students.

"As far as tuition, we're definitely competitive," said Rich Schaffer, president of the academy, which is attracting students with small class sizes, a rigorous curriculum, technology in classrooms and a new theater program.

Enrollment at Holy Family Catholic Academy, near Honolulu Airport, increased by about 40 students, to 547, this school year.

The K-8 school serves mostly children of military families.

Academy Principal Christina Malins said she suspects a new nearby military housing development and increased deployments to Hawaii are to thank for her larger student population.

"We were surprised" to see enrollment increase, she said.

On the Big Island, Hawaii Preparatory Academy, one of the state's most expensive private schools, also saw an increase in enrollment this school year after its student population declined the year before.

There are about 606 students at the K-12 school this year, up from 570.

Tuition for high school students is $19,900, up $700 from the 2009-10 school year.

Joshua Clark, the academy's director of admissions, said he believes some of the enrollment growth is because families are more confident about their finances -- or willing to make a sacrifice.

"They felt they just had to make it happen," he said.

The school also has increased financial aid, which helped bring in about 20 new students.

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