Private schools adapt to fewer students, fewer funds

By Jessica Beery • Last Updated 7:05 pm on Tuesday, October 04, 2011

From left, St. Charles Catholic School second-graders Jon Saur, Grace Platte and Teagan O'Toole enjoy educational games on school computers Monday. According to Principal Margaret Karpus, students use the computer labs two to three times per week for language practice, accelerated reading and other educational programs. (Daily News/Jessica Dudenhofer)


Local private schools are surviving the rough economy to keep educational alternatives for parents and students.
Private schools, often owned or operated by area religious institutions, receive most of their income from tuition and donations. They don’t receive any tax dollars, which make up the bulk of public school funding.
Private schools can only rely on receiving more donations or attracting more students to bring in more revenue when times are tough. But that can be hard when people have less to give.

Keeping costs low
Cutting costs wherever possible is the obvious first step for many local private schools.
According to Tim Schmig, executive director of the Michigan Association of Christian Schools, parochial schools across the state are learning to make do with less. Cuts include postponing renovations that aren’t mandatory and reducing the full-time staff.
“There are definitely more part-time teachers than before,” Schmig said.
He said Christian schools aren’t cutting back on essential academic courses, but many schools have had to cut back on some extracurricular activities and programs.
“They may not offer an art class because they can’t afford an art teacher,” Schmig said. “And with not very many students, they may have to drop a baseball program because they don’t have nine players to go out on the field.”
At Cowden Lake Bible Academy in Coral, tuition has been frozen for the past few years while families are struggling to make ends meet. But with rising costs and stagnant revenue, school leaders carefully examine how every penny of their $150,000 annual budget is spent.
Pastor Larry Rolston, the school’s administrator, said he’s spent the summer remodeling the school’s gymnasium -  only one example of how the school is using free in-house labor to help make ends meet. He said all the teachers on staff have been faithful to the school for at least 10 years, working for minimum wage.
“People are committed,” he said. “They want to see the school keep going.”

Keeping standards high
Private schools also are mindful of the need to provide a relevant education and keep up with trends in technology. Private schools are doing their best with technology grants and donations.
St. Charles Catholic School in Greenville now has smart boards in all of its classrooms. These interactive boards allow teachers to project a lesson from a computer to a white dry erase board in the front of a classroom.
“We’re certainly trying to keep up with technology as much as we can,” said Principal Margaret Karpus.
Schmig and Karpus said high academic standards and character development are two reasons parents are making private schooling work for their families.
“We have students that have been accepted to all major universities and military academies,” Schmig said, bringing up high SAT and ACT scores of private school students. “We’ve even had students working the highest security jobs in the White House.”
Karpus said her Catholic school families seem to appreciate the faith-based education and a well-balanced curriculum – even if they’re not Catholic.
“We’re like a big family,” she said. “Teachers and students alike care for our students.”
Schmig said many Christian families mostly appreciate Bible teaching in the classroom and character development.
“Those are two things they can’t get in public school,” he said.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of three stories about private schools.

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