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School seeks funds to keep doors open

Lutheran High is one of several private campuses in trouble as enrollment drops

By Mary Vorsino

LAST UPDATED: 3:04 a.m. HST, Feb 3, 2011

After several years of declining enrollment and running through savings to cover costs, Lutheran High School in Manoa is appealing to the community for support to remain open.

"We need all the help we can get right now," principal Art Gundell said.

Lutheran High Fundraiser

» What: Musical performances from Roland Cazimero and others
» When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 11
» Where: Hawaii Theatre
» Cost: Tickets start at $45
» Information: 528-0506
The 100-student school will hold a fundraiser Feb. 11 at Hawaii Theatre after already turning to parents and alumni for donations. Gundell said the school is "being honest" with students, and has warned them the campus could close at the end of the school year in May.

"It's just the economy," he said.

Enrollment has steadily declined since 2008, when about 140 students attended the school. Gundell said the school has all but depleted its savings since it largely relies on tuition — set at $10,000 this year — to cover operational costs.

The school has 16 employees, 14 of whom are teachers.

Lutheran High is one of a number of small private schools in Hawaii and nationally struggling to stay afloat in the recession as enrollment drops and student financial need rises. Last year, Holy Trinity School in Kuliouou and Word of Life Academy in Kakaako closed when the global downturn worsened their already-shaky financial conditions.

Enrollment this year at private schools statewide fell to 38,155 students, a five-year low in the wake of closures and as families continued to search for expenses to cut.

Overall, private school enrollment in Hawaii is down 5 percent from the 2007-08 school year.

About one-fifth of school-age children in Hawaii attend private school.

Small private schools are feeling the biggest effects of the economic downturn, educators have said, because they often rely almost solely on tuition and have little or no endowments.

Larry Estrella, principal of Maili Bible School, said he has frozen salaries and tuition, and instituted other austerity measures after losing about 20 students through the last few years.

About 100 students, most from low-income households, attend the pre-kindergarten-to-12th-grade school.

Maili Bible's tuition is $3,724 for high school students. But, Estrella said, he has told many parents to pay whatever they can afford.

"We've had to cut back a lot," he said.

Still, Estrella said he is confident the school, established in 1974, will make it through.

"We doing everything we can," he said. "It's not for us, it's for these kids."

Nancy Begley, principal of Kona Christian Academy, said her school of 120 students in grades K-7 is trying to be more conservative on purchases.

"We are trying to cut costs," she said.

The school is planning an open house to try to attract more students. Enrollment at the Big Island school has declined slightly in recent years, in part because of families moving to the mainland, she said. Many parents, she said, were looking for work.

At Lutheran High, Gundell said the school has tried other smaller fundraisers and brainstormed a host of ideas to improve its finances, but none have helped enough to pull the school from its current situation. The school emphasizes Christian values and a tight-knit environment. In better years, its enrollment always hovered around 140.

"The whole community is very tight," Gundell said. "They all love this school."

Lutheran High graduated its first senior class in 1975.

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