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Private Practices 

Nonpublic schools adjust to lower enrollment figures without sacrificing the quality of education for students

As everybody knows, when a New Orleans native asks where you went to school, he or she is not inquiring about the college or university you attended, but where you went to high school.

New Orleanians are loyal to their high school alma maters, and that goes double for anyone who spent their formative years in a private or parochial high school. It's not uncommon for some of these venerable institutions to have educated three, four and even five generations of a single extended family.

Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath didn't necessarily dislodge these allegiances, but it did force many families to leave the New Orleans area. The result is that fewer children have applied to private and parochial high schools in the past three years, and the student populations at these schools have declined. The shortfall in enrollment, however, doesn't mirror the overall smaller, post-Katrina student population, which, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, stands at 76 percent of the pre-Katrina figures. In general, private and parochial schools have rebounded to 80 to90 percent of their pre-storm enrollments.

They have done it by maintaining the many positive aspects of a private or parochial education — smaller classes, specialization, lower student-to-teacher ratios, higher percentages of students who go on to college, technology, higher standardized test scores, character building — and successfully promoting their product to parents. Competition for students is stiff, one school administrator says, but it remains friendly because each school offers a different educational mission. Parents who choose a private or parochial education for their children often have to sacrifice financially, but for them, it's a worthwhile investment.

"I think it's a choice people make," says Kate Clarke, who coordinates admissions and public relations for the Independent School Association of the Southwest's (ISAS) New Orleans members. "They put education at the top of the list. They live in a smaller house and send their kids to private schools."

Lovell Beaulieu, admissions director at St. Augustine High School, isn't overly concerned about increased competition. He says it's to be expected in a post-storm New Orleans with a smaller population. "We always adjust."

For Beaulieu, what hasn't changed is the quality of education available for boys at St. Augustine. Admissions have dropped from a pre-Katrina level of 987 to a present enrollment of 700 students, but Beaulieu points out that because of the storm, the school lost one of its sites, St. Augustine Academy, which accommodated 377 students. Although everyone would like more students, he says the current student-to-teacher ratio of 18-to-1 is "a good fit for us."

"We're growing back to our pre-Katrina level," Beaulieu says.

Several generations of families made St. Augustine their high school of choice. Some of the students' families were displaced in the first year following the storm, but Beaulieu says they arranged for the boys to continue their studies at the venerable Catholic high school. He says he's confident new families will recognize that the school, now entering its 58th year, offers a quality education and is committed to investing in the future. He points to St. Augustine's new language labs and computer labs as examples of the school's forward thinking.

Eileen Powers, headmistress at the Louise S. McGehee School, says not much has changed in terms of admissions since the storm, or in general. By design, the private Uptown school is intended to be a smaller institution with a personal approach and holds a unique position within New Orleans' private schools.

"We have a particular niche in that we are the only independent all-girls school that is not religiously affiliated," Powers says.

Determining how a particular institution will foster your child's maturity is something parents should be concerned with when they're evaluating schools, says Kerri Todesco, director of public relations at St. Mary's Dominican High School. Todesco suggests parents ask school administrators about the outcome of that high school education: To which colleges do graduates apply and where area they accepted? How do students at these prospective schools grow, both personally and socially? What is student life like at these institutions?

"There's a big difference between the eighth-grader who enters our school and the senior who graduates," Todesco says. "I would like to know about that transition into adulthood."

Powers agrees that character development is a vital component to a successful high school education. She says that by the time a girl becomes a senior at McGehee, she has been with her classmates for a number of years and they have grown together.

"It tends to be a leadership and bonding experience, particularly for those in the upper school, because we view them as the leaders of the school," Powers says.

Like McGehee, Metairie Park Country Day School maintains a small enrollment. However, this year's freshmen class of 69 students is one of the largest in the school's history, says Katie Rosenblum, director of marketing and public relations. She says admissions have grown every year since the storm and "every year we're above our projections."

Private schools are competing for fewer students, but she says it's not a cutthroat battle for parents' checks.

"I think it's more friendly competition because each of the independent schools has a different educational philosophy," Rosenblum says.

In fact, all five private high schools in the area are members of the ISAS. The schools — Academy of the Sacred Heart, Isidore Newman School, Country Day, McGehee and St. Martin's Episcopal School — advertise together through their ISAS membership and meet regularly to discuss admissions and public relations. Because each school provides a distinct educational setting — religious, secular, coed and single-gender — they encourage prospective students and parents to explore all the private school options that are applicable to their circumstances. Additionally, students considering more than one ISAS school only have to take one admissions test instead of a separate exam for each school.

In terms of marketing, Powers says her school pays for advertising in a variety of publications, promotes the school through its Web site and sends out press releases to media outlets. McGehee also stays in contact with its students' parents through email messages and letters. She refers to this as internal marketing and says it leads to parents telling other parents about the McGehee experience.

"Word of mouth in New Orleans is everything, and that is something that is key to us," Powers says.

Open houses and campus tours remain two of the strongest tools schools have for attracting potential students. With a smaller pool of applicants, many of the private and parochial schools are expanding these offerings so more students and parents can test-drive the schools that interest them.

"Before Katrina, everyone was comfortable with just doing the open house," says Pierre DeGruy, director of development at Jesuit High School.

In addition to its open house in November, DeGruy says Jesuit will host "Blue and White Friday Night" this month. During the event, prospective students will spend a few hours at the school and will be introduced to campus life through sports exhibitions, talks with seniors and other presentations. In the spring, Jesuit will unveil its latest promotional effort, "Jesuit, Jazz and Jambalaya," which administrators hope to post online so parents can take virtual tours of the school, hear speeches and view assemblies.

Campus tours also have expanded in scope, Rosenblum says. At Country Day, a child visiting the school is paired with a student and gets an insider's view by attending classes, eating lunch and directly experiencing school life. Later in the day, parents are invited to take their own tour of the school.

Visitors to the Holy Cross School's Web site can get a glimpse into the future. The site features a video tour of the new campus in Gentilly, which will open in time for the 2009 school year. Admissions Director Brian Kitchen says he fields numerous calls from interested parents about the ongoing construction, but tries to steer those conversations back to education.

"The bricks and mortar are one thing, and it is a beautiful thing," he says. "But the product has to be more than just a building."

Kitchen would rather sell his school's reputation based on academics — 99 percent of Holy Cross graduates go on to college, the school boasts a student-to-teacher ratio of 12-to-1, and 39 percent of the faculty holds graduate degrees. Kitchen does realize, however, that the new facilities will boost the school's enrollment, which is currently 625 students.

"By 2010, we plan to be at 1,000 students for grades five through 12," he says.

One of the biggest questions parents face when considering a private or parochial education is affordability. Considering the recent economic crisis, this could become a larger issue for more parents. In order to alleviate some of these financial concerns, schools offer a variety of solutions, including work-study programs, financial aid and scholarships.

DeGruy says the number of parents needing financial aid has steadily increased — 125 Jesuit families received $350,000 in assistance last year — but that should not prevent any student or family from applying.

"No qualified student has ever been turned down because of finances," DeGruy says.

ISAS' Clarke says it's far too early to speculate if the Wall Street meltdown will affect local private schools. She says she's not especially worried because private school parents already view tuition as a necessary expense for their children's future. That fact, coupled with the schools' healthy enrollments only three years after the flood, lead her to believe these schools will continue to flourish.

"I'm not sure how much it is going to trickle down to the schools," she says. "I think they'll be fine."

click to enlarge Older students act as Big Sisters, or mentors, to younger girls at St. Mary's Dominican High School
  • Older students act as Big Sisters, or mentors, to younger girls at St. Mary's Dominican High School
click to enlarge Students at St. Augustine High School engage in a class experiment. The school recently added a new language lab, a fully equipped journalism classroom and made significant improvements to its overall campus with Smart Boards, new laptop computers and new bleachers in the school gymnasium.
  • Students at St. Augustine High School engage in a class experiment. The school recently added a new language lab, a fully equipped journalism classroom and made significant improvements to its overall campus with Smart Boards, new laptop computers and new bleachers in the school gymnasium.
click to enlarge Students in the lower school perform during Grandparents' Day, middle school students are sworn into the National Junior Honor Society, and high school students bring home a trophy in the 2008 Mock Trial State Championships.
  • Students in the lower school perform during Grandparents' Day, middle school students are sworn into the National Junior Honor Society, and high school students bring home a trophy in the 2008 Mock Trial State Championships.
click to enlarge Louise S. McGehee school offers girls a variety of activities in which they can explore their interests and excel.
  • Louise S. McGehee school offers girls a variety of activities in which they can explore their interests and excel.
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