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February 7, 2023

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Private schools: Fending off an exodus of students

Educators offering financial aid as families struggle to pay tuition amid the grinding recession


Leila Navidi

A student walks down the hall at the Meadows School in Summerlin Thursday, March 4, 2010.

Private Schools

Freshman Austin Lee, center, and sophomore Maddy Walsh formulate an argument during debate class at the Meadows School in Summerlin Thursday, March 4, 2010. Launch slideshow »

Even as public schools are reeling from state budget cuts, private and parochial schools in the Las Vegas Valley are confronting their own financial struggles, with recession-slammed parents struggling to make tuition payments.

One high school will close its doors for want of students, and other schools are holding on to their families by offering financial aid, or by recruiting students from pricier campuses.

The most dramatic development in the ranks of the area's private schools was the announcement by Henderson International School that it will close two of the three campuses it operates and eliminate its high school program at the end of the current academic year.

The school, owned by Meritas LLC of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has a pre-K through 12th grade enrollment of about 850 students.

The company said fewer parents can afford its annual tuition, which for 12th graders is listed at $17,846 — or $40,675 including room and board.

“Despite years of intense efforts to raise enrollment and improve operations, the serious economic challenges facing our community have taken their toll,” head of schools Brian Siegel said in a statement. “While closing the high school was a very difficult decision, and only made after other options were fully explored, doing so returns our school to financial health and allows us greater resources and focus to provide our preschool through eighth grade students with the area’s finest academic experience.”

Kevin Dunning, executive director of Faith Lutheran Junior/Senior High School, says he is fielding calls from Henderson International families with children at all grade levels, who are either losing their high school or are concerned about the private company’s long-term prospects. There’s also been an increase in applications from families with children at other area private schools who are interested in transferring.

“They want to keep their child in a private school setting, but perhaps not at the $20,000 (per year) price tag,” Dunning said. “Our tuition (for grades 6-12) is $10,000, and that includes everything but the uniforms.”

So far Dunning hasn’t seen an influx of families fleeing a public school system in fiscal crisis.

“They may be waiting to see what the practical implications are of the (statewide) budget cuts and the implications for the Clark County School District,” Dunning said.

Faith Lutheran is enrolling for the 2010-11 academic year, and Dunning expects to see strong numbers. Enrollment is up this year to 1,320 from 1,275 last year.

This year the school has provided $650,000 in tuition discounts and direct grants, more than double the $280,000 awarded for the 2007-08 academic year.

That money has come from various sources, including the school’s decision to cut back on other expenses and move the dollars to tuition support. Dunning also made a direct appeal to parents in November to support the scholarship fund, and the response was strong — $52,000 in donations, compared with $28,000 in the prior year.

“We have very generous parents and supporters of this school,” Dunning said. “They try to step forward and help others, when they can.”

Nationally, from 2006 to 2009, private school enrollment dropped by about 146,000, or 2.5 percent, according to the U.S. Education Department.

Across the country, private campuses “have been able to maintain their enrollment largely because of the flexibility to increase financial aid temporarily,” said Myra McGovern, public information director for the National Association of Independent Schools in Washington, D.C. “They are helping families get through the rough spot and making adjustments later.”

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Juniors Troy Batugal, from left, Sanchay Gupta, Ajay Batra and Sterling Campbell listen to a lecture during AP European History class at the Meadows School in Summerlin Thursday, March 4, 2010.

The association’s members include the Meadows School and the Alexander Dawson School, both in Summerlin.

McGovern said the group’s research of recessions going back to 1969 suggests that independent schools — private nonprofits — will weather the storm, but that enrollment may rebound more slowly at some schools and campuses may have to dip more deeply into reserve funds.

Over the past two years at the Meadows School, there’s been a steady increase in families seeking help, said Carolyn Goodman, founder of the private, nonprofit campus that offers preschool through 12th grade.

There have been “quite a few” families where a previously stay-at-home parent has gone back to work, and some single parents have taken on second jobs, Goodman said. In other cases, parents that had been paying in full have switched to monthly payment plans or asked their extended families for help paying tuition.

Within the past three months, five families have told her they’re taking their children out of the Meadows and moving because of an employment change.

Tuition at the Meadows ranges from $15,800 to $21,200, with about 18 percent of students receiving financial aid.

The attitude among parents who are now seeking additional assistance is that “this is temporary,” Goodman said. “These are people with great strength and determination. They don’t want to pull their kids out. They’ve said to me, ‘If you can help us through the next year to year and a half, we’ll be back where we were.’ ”

The Meadows’ overall enrollment has held steady since 2007, ranging from about 890 to 910 students. There’s been an influx of new families, some of whom have moved to Las Vegas to take jobs with the Nevada Cancer Institute.

Goodman said the Meadows is weathering the recession in part because of the financial model adopted when the school was created 26 years ago. There is a small administrative staff, with the vast majority of dollars going to the classroom. The campus itself is debt-free, as buildings were added only when donor funding would pay for them.

“That doesn’t mean any other school that might be having problems hasn’t been responsible,” Goodman said. “It just means we had a formula, we knew what we wanted to do and we held tight.”

At the Alexander Dawson School, which offers preschool through eighth grade and is enrolling for 2010-11, “our books are balanced, our enrollment is strong,” headmaster Michael Imperi said. “We’re not experiencing growth, but we’re not experiencing decline.”

The campus is satisfied to be “holding steady,” even though it comes after a heady few years when 10 percent enrollment growth was the norm, Imperi said.

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Sophomore Keerthi Gondy sits by her locker after school at the Meadows School in Summerlin Thursday, March 4, 2010.

Requests for financial aid are up, and in several cases “it’s our families that had been paying tuition in full for years,” Imperi said.

Tuition is $19,400 for full-day kindergarten through fourth grade, and $19,700 for the upper grades.

About 20 percent of Alexander Dawson students receive some financial aid, which accounts for about 14 percent of the total budget. Donations to the school’s scholarship fund are up this year. “The families that are still doing well are even more generous than before,” Imperi said. “Those who are struggling are doing everything they can to keep their kid in an independent school.”

The Diocese of Las Vegas, which operates Bishop Gorman High School, has seen a 20 percent increase in requests for tuition assistance since the 2008-09 academic year. The percentage of students receiving some form of aid has risen to 35 percent from 29 percent in 2008. Last year the diocese awarded over $1 million in tuition assistance (the cost is $11,500 annually, discounted $1,400 for registered parishioners). At the same time, enrollment has grown at Bishop Gorman over the past two years, to 1,164 from 1,058.

At Las Vegas Day School, a K-8 program where tuition ranges from $12,700 to $14,700, enrollment stands at 750 students, down about 10 percent from last year. The for-profit school does not offer financial aid or scholarships.

“Private education is certainly a sacrifice,” director Neil Daseler said. “Unfortunately, we’ve lost some wonderful families.”

Enrollment was also down 10 percent last year, although families coming in throughout the academic year eventually brought the total numbers back up to where they had been. Daseler is optimistic that the vacant seats will again fill up. The school is enrolling for 2010-11.

“We’re hopeful,” Daseler said. “I want to be hopeful for our entire valley that the economy will improve and that Las Vegas will begin to rebound — for everyone’s sake.”

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