Local private schools struggle to survive tough economy

By Jessica Beery • Last Updated 3:59 pm on Monday, September 26, 2011

Declining enrollment is an every day reality for public schools across the region, putting a strain on their finances.
However, public schools aren’t alone in struggling to make ends meet with fewer students. Private schools are feeling the pinch as well — some more than others.
Private schools, often owned or operated by area religious institutions, receive most of their income from tuition and donations. Public schools are funded almost completely through property taxes.
So fewer people can afford private schools when income levels fall and jobs dry up.

Feeling the pinch
Cowden Lake Bible Academy in Coral is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year with half as many students as it started with in 1981.

Hannah Glover, a first-grader at Cowden Lake Bible Academy, works hard on her homework during the last 20 minutes of class. Glover is one of six students at Cowden Lake in the classroom for kindergarten, first grade and second grade.

The small Christian school has seen a steady decline in enrollment in recent years, according to School Administrator Larry Rolston.
He said annual enrollment was about 60 to 70 students during the first few years of the school. Only 32 students enrolled to start classes this year.
Last year there were 37.
“It mainly has to do with the economy,” Rolston said of the decline. “The reason we dropped this year is because we had two families with four kids each that couldn’t afford to (pay tuition). One of those fathers had lost his job.”
Rolston said tuition at the acadmey is $2,650 per student, with each additional sibling costing a little less.
Cowden Lake Academy isn’t alone in struggling to fill seats in the classroom. Tim Schmig, executive director of the Michigan Association of Christian Schools, said the economy has caused a slight downward trend for Christian schools across the state.
“Without a doubt, the economy has affected the schools,” Schmig said.
He said one school this year has 23 fewer students than last year, mostly because the parents’ jobs have moved to other states.

Closing doors
Oakfield Baptist Academy offered Christ-centered education in Oakfield Township for 25 years before making the difficult decision to close its doors in 2004.
Sheila Bronkema, a parent of four Oakfield graduates and former school volunteer, remembers the buzz in the air at Oakfield Baptist Church when it decided to open the school in June 1978. The church only had a few months to get the school open and ready for that fall
“It was almost miraculous,” Bronkema said. “Everyone worked together. There was a real air of excitement.”
She said most of the church members had their children enrolled in public school, but they “had a conviction” to have their youngsters learn from Christian teaching and Biblical curriculum.

Oakfield Baptist Academy closed its doors in 2004. The building that used to be busy with students of all ages now sits silent, except for church functions and occasional building rentals.

The school grew in students numbers every year, reaching its peak in the early 1980s at 180 to 200 students. But numbers started to fall as families decided to begin homeschooling their children or enrolling them in charter schools.
“It was somewhat gradual,” Bronkema said. “The decision (to close) was after we took stock of everything. It was a very difficult decision to make, but we could see the handwriting on the wall.”
The church now uses the former school rooms for Sunday school while the gymnasium still gets used for wedding receptions and outreach events.
“It still bothers me sometimes when I got over there,” Bronkema said. “I remember when it was so vibrant. But things change.”

Not dead
Schmig said that Christian schools are far from dying out. Though a handful of schools have closed in recent years, several are in the works to be opened within a year or two.
“The need for Christian schools is not any less than it was 15 years ago,” he said.
Some private schools have experienced increasing enrollment in recent years. St. Charles in Greenville has 9 percent more students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
Principal Margaret Karpus, who has more than 25 years of experience in Catholic education, said the parishioners of St. Charles are “very committed” to the school. A handful of new families recently moved to the area and joined the school.
“We’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Karpus said. “The last three or four years, we’ve either maintained or increased” enrollment.
She said there are 22 kindergardeners starting at St. Charles on Aug. 30, bringing enrollment to about 160 in the school.
“We’re very blessed,” Karpus said.
She said many people have the misconception that only Catholics can attend St. Charles Schools.
“We accept any denominations,” Karpus said. “We’re like a big family.”

Sacrifice needed
Schmig said parents who consider Christian education a priority will do whatever it takes to send their children to parochial schools. He points to a father employed in a middle management position at General Motors who took a second job in the evening delivering pizza so he could send his children to a Christian school.
“Those who want their kids in Christian school are willing to do without,” Schmig said. “There has to be an attitude of sacrifice. Many families are doing without things, making sacrifices to make it possible.”
Karpus said she sees her families sacrifice to afford annual tuition costing $2,450 to $4,000 per student.
“If they’re coming, they know they’re going to have to make sacrifices,” she said.
Schmig and Karpus said high academic standards and character development are two reasons parents make private schooling a high priority.
Karpus said her Catholic school families seem to appreciate the faith-based education and well-balanced curriculum.
“We’re like a big family,” she said. “Teachers and students alike care for our students.”

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