Private School Enrollment Fluctuates With Economy
Potrero Hill boasts two private kindergarten through eighth grade schools, two public kindergarten through fifth grade schools, and three public high schools. Several factors play into families’ decisions, about where to send their school-age children, but finances are among the strongest motivating forces determining where students learn their ABCs and multiplication tables. Money also influences whether families stay in the City or move to a more affordable location.
According to California Department of Education (CDE) data, enrollment at private Live Oak School, located at 1555 Mariposa Street, has inched back up since the depths of the 2008 recession. In the middle of the economic downturn there were 258 students at the independent school; that number rose to 271 for the most recent school year. Tuition at Live Oak for the 2013 school year is $24,610.
Data for recently launched pre-kindergarten through eighth grade La Scuola Internazionale di San Francisco was only available for the past school year, when just 12 students were enrolled in grades kindergarten through second. This year the school added a third grade class. The school opened originally as a home-based play group program. In 2010 it created a preschool campus, which has roughly 130 students, and added its elementary school. Tuition for this school year is $20,000.
Throughout San Francisco, enrollment in all types of private schools — independent and parochial — dropped by almost six percent between the 2009 and 2010 school years, from 23,253 students countywide to 21,915, according to CDE data.
Joe McTighe, executive director at the Council for American Private Education, acknowledged that the economy plays a role in school choice, especially if a parent loses a job, sharply reducing a family’s discretionary income. “The economy affects enrollment in a reverse way” as well, McTighe pointed out. When funding reductions prompt school districts to scale back on extracurricular, art and music and other programming; and political changes focus more attention on basic math and English learning, parents turn to private schools. “It’s a double-edged sword,” McTighe said.
According to Ron Reynolds, executive director of the California Association of Private School Organizations, throughout the state there’s been a decline in private school enrollment in the past decade, but in the past year enrollment seems to have stabilized at slightly lower rates. “Overwhelmingly” private education is only an option for “families that can afford it,” said Reynolds. In the 2000s the housing boom coincided with a rise in private school enrollment, he said. But with the subsequent bust came high attrition rates at those same schools. “The recession clearly had an impact,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds also pointed to the “proliferation” of charter schools as pulling students from private to public schools that have a sponsor and tend to feature more parent involvement and better teacher-to-student ratios. “A lot of parents say this looks similar to a private school,” said Reynolds, but without the tuition. “That part is hard to compete with.” He said more charter schools are popping up. The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) website lists 10 of such schools, such as KIPP Bayview. Starting this fall, charter high school KIPP SF College Prep is sharing space with International Studies Academy (ISA) at the Enola Maxwell campus. Private and religious alternatives are still a common choice in San Francisco, where large swaths of the population can afford to send children to pricey schools.
Public schools within 94107 include Starr King Elementary, Daniel Webster, ISA, KIPP, and Downtown High School. Enrollment at these schools rose during the trough of the economic downturn rose; it’s declined somewhat with the economic recovery. Last year, ISA had 402 students, and 409 students the year before, compared to 529 students in 2008. In 2006 and 2005 there were 421 and 470 ISA students, respectively. In contrast, Starr King Elementary has beefed up enrollment since the recession, growing from 290 students in 2008 to 358 students last year. In 2005 the school was struggling, with only 151 students in attendance.
An analysis of SFUSD enrollment by Berkeley-based Lapkoff & Gobalet Demographic Research, based on the 2009 school year, found that enrollment at district schools had declined throughout the 2000s until 2008, when registration rose. According to the report, “the economic recession could cause abnormal patterns, such as lowering the (relatively high) percentage of San Francisco children attending private schools.” In 2008, 27 percent of City students attended private schools. The report found that “higher family income is the single most important characteristic of children in private schools, even when controlling for race, place of birth, and area of residence.”
The report also indicated that residential construction in Bayview-Hunters Point, Visitacion Valley and Mission Bay is bringing additional students to schools, and more development will attract school-age children into growing areas. According to district spokeswoman Heidi Anderson, school officials are anticipating growth in Southside neighborhoods. “SFUSD routinely studies the overall enrollment needs of the district,” she wrote in an email, and “considers a range of options to accommodate any anticipated enrollment growth.” She noted that school placement is not based on neighborhood, but on choice, and that the 94107 area is on track to accommodate any population spurts in the next year or so. The district is working with demographers, she wrote, and “development plans for Potrero Hill were not yielding students, but we are continuing to take a look at it.”
Neighborhoods do have a role in determining whether a student goes the private or public route. The Demographic Research report found that, “The neighborhood in which children live makes a big difference in whether they attend private school. Children living in the northwestern part of the City are much more likely to attend private school than children in any other region.” This trend is likely related to the high-income levels of residents in that part of the City.
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